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Whistle Stop

Judge Jails Railroad Man For Contempt

John Ellsberry
LOCO-MOTIVES: Aspiring independent railroadman James Riffin spent two weeks in jail recently for refusing to pay a $250,000 bond related to environmental violations tied to the Cockeysville site he says is his railroad facility.

By Van Smith | Posted 7/2/2008

"They locked me up," James Riffin declares, when reached by phone on June 26. "Got out last night."

Riffin spent nearly two weeks in the Baltimore County Detention Center, incarcerated for what the law calls "constructive contempt," since he had failed to cough up a $250,000 bond that had been ordered by a judge earlier this year.

According to court documents, Riffin had intended to spend the day he was jailed--Friday the 13th--somewhere between Baltimore and Arkansas, where a locomotive and railcars he purchased as part of his nascent freight-railroading operations based in Cockeysville ("Train Wreck," Feature, Oct. 10, 2007) are awaiting delivery. Instead, he was summoned to a motions hearing in a four-year-old environmental lawsuit brought against him by state and local authorities, over well-documented violations at his Cockeysville site. Riffin claims the property is a railroad facility, and therefore exempt from state and local jurisdiction. It is a position he has consistently taken during his ongoing legal crusade, which started after he purchased the Cockeysville property in 2003 to provide freight-rail service along what, since 1990, has been the Cockeysville line of the Baltimore Light Rail system. As often happens when Riffin makes his case in courtrooms, he lost. Then things turned dire.

"The judge said, `You're in contempt,' and that was it," Riffin recalls of what happened before Baltimore City Circuit Court judge Susan Souder. "Two minutes later, I'm in cuffs and on my way out of the courthouse and into jail."

Souder, asked through her law clerk on June 25 to summarize what happened when Riffin came before her, declined to elaborate. Her June 13 order simply states that Riffin "shall be incarcerated until he has complied" with the requirement to post a $250,000 bond. That happened June 25, when a bank in Oklahoma extended a line of credit to Riffin to satisfy the order. The two plaintiffs' attorneys in the case--Baltimore County government attorney Adam Rosenblatt and Assistant Attorney General Adam Snyder, representing the Maryland Department of the Environment--would not discuss the matter, which is part of ongoing litigation and is currently on appeal before the Maryland Court of Special Appeals.

Riffin's ongoing persistence in pursuing his railroading dreams has resulted not only in the long-fought charges of environmental violations at his Cockeysville site, which prompted his recent imprisonment, but in charges made by lawyers opposing him--at times seconded by judges ordering sanctions against him--that he is a frivolous litigant. But Riffin's proficiency in the law has given him a remarkable ability to keep matters alive, and typically he remains undaunted by negative outcomes in the various lawsuits and other legal avenues he's pursued in preparation for, someday, actually shipping freight.

And sometimes Riffin wins--as he did this spring, partially, when the U.S. Surface Transportation Board, the federal body that regulates railroads, issued a decision accepting Riffin's contention that he is a rail carrier with respect to a stretch of railroad he owns south of Frostburg, in Western Maryland. As such, the board wrote, "the application of many state and local laws that would otherwise apply" to Riffin's railroading activities there "would be pre-empted" by federal railroading laws.

In the same decision, though, the STB wrote that Riffin's Cockeysville site is not a railroading facility, as Riffin has long maintained. Riffin has appealed the Cockeysville portion of the board's decision to the Washington, D.C. Court of Appeals, where he says he is optimistic about his chances of prevailing when the judges there consider his legal arguments.

"They know their railroad law really, really well," Riffin says, so it's the venue "where I want to be making these arguments."

Riffin sees a silver lining in Souder's order for his incarceration, too. He contends that she failed to advise him in open court of his right to counsel before jailing him, and that therefore he has cause to sue for violation of his civil rights. He is also happy because now he has satisfied the order to post the $250,000 bond, which stays an injunction that Baltimore County and MDE won in 2004 to prevent him from conducting any further railroading activities at the Cockeysville site.

"It's a complicated case, and it ain't over," Riffin concludes. "But they can't touch me right now, so I can actually go up to my place [in Cockeysville] and dig holes and do anything I want. I don't know that I have a completely free card to do whatever I want, but it's free-ish. Up until now, I've held off because I was always afraid they were going to lock me up. Now, they've already done that. I think it will be pretty hard for them to lock me up a second time."

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