The Towson District Court's 11 a.m. traffic docket in Courtroom 6 on Sept. 7 started right on time. After the judge quickly dismissed the first two cases, he called the third and final one: a $37 ticket for an abandoned vehicle, contested by its owner, James Riffin.
Though Riffin came prepared to present expert testimony from a surveyor and a title lawyer, planning to prove his white Ford van had been illegally ticketed and towed from his own property, he never got the chance. Judge Ralph H. France II, dismissed the case, saying his law clerk told him the county had determined the officer had used an outdated ticketing system.
"The law you are charged with violating doesn't exist," France told Riffin before announcing "Everybody is free to go."
But Riffin's freedom soon will be put in the balance, if Baltimore County has its way in the other case involving his white Ford van-criminal charges for which the steepest penalty is a three-year prison sentence and a $2,500 fine.
The scene of the alleged crimes is a former distillery complex adjacent to a Cockeysville creek that flows into Loch Raven reservoir, which Riffin, since he purchased it in 2003, has been preparing to use as a base of operations for his still-nascent railroading business ("Train Wreck," Feature, Oct. 10, 2007). The charges, filed in June, stem from a county government crackdown on Riffin's activities there this past spring, when he removed large amounts of dirt and equipment that he'd placed on the property over the years.
Riffin's van was ticketed and towed amid the crackdown, but he was also charged with, among other crimes, malicious property destruction, altering the landscape in a reservoir-polluting fashion, and stealing dirt. The City of Baltimore, which owns property adjacent to Riffin's wannabe railroading facility, is the alleged victim. Riffin says all his activities occurred on his property, not the city's.
The old distillery property has been in foreclosure during Riffin's ongoing bankruptcy, but it's long been a regulatory target. Riffin asserts that it's a railroading facility, and therefore his activities there should be exempt from state and local laws. Local and state regulators have disagreed, as have the courts, and in 2008 he was briefly jailed for contempt in one of the resulting lawsuits ("Whistle Stop," Mobtown Beat, July 2, 2008).
Riffin says the current criminal case against him amounts to a Catch-22. He says the charges arose because he'd been scrambling to meet a June 2012 deadline to comply with a court order, issued in a civil case over environmental violations at the property, that he remove all the dirt, rocks, and equipment he'd stockpiled there over the years.
"They're charging me with crimes for doing what it is they told me to do," Riffin claims. "What am I supposed to do?"
In October, a jury is scheduled to weigh any reasonable doubts that Riffin's conduct broke the laws. He plans to have expert testimony from the same surveyor and title lawyer he'd retained for the abandoned-ticket case and says he'll introduce evidence showing he owns the property where he'd been removing dirt pursuant to a court order.
"They're trying to lock me up, I've got no choice but to fight," Riffin says, adding that he's also scheduled to present the same experts and evidence before juries in two other cases in which he's sued Baltimore City for trespassing and for the return of his van.
County officials have consistently maintained a no-comment policy on all Riffin-related matters, since they've been at legal loggerheads with him, with cases pending before courts at nearly every level, for almost all of the time he's owned the Cockeysville property. Adam Rosenblatt, an attorney for the county who has been the point-man on the Riffin case, confirmed the no-comment policy.
"Baltimore City is trying to make my life miserable," Riffin says, "but I'm going to prove that that piece of dirt is my piece of dirt, and maybe a jury will give me some money over all this. In the meantime, their game plan is to make me miserable, and they are being successful at it."