CHESTERTOWN - A former volunteer fire company treasurer who used fire company funds to make a mortgage payment was ordered to perform 30 hours of community work over the next nine months as part of a sentence that will spare her a criminal record if she follows all the conditions of probation.

Deborah Frances Price, 61, of Betterton, accepted the judge's offer of probation before judgment Friday morning in the Circuit Court of Kent County.

Probation before judgment is not a conviction, but requires a period of probation, either supervised or unsupervised. In this case Judge Paul M. Bowman placed Price on unsupervised probation for one year.

Price must comply with all the conditions of probation – obey all laws, perform the community work by next September and pay court costs of $150 within one year. If she does that, she may file a request for an expungement, which essentially makes the case go away – i.e. the police and court records are removed from public inspection.

Since a PBJ is not a conviction, Price can truthfully say she has not been convicted of a crime.

Assistant State's Attorney Hallie Salmi vigorously opposed probation before judgment, telling the judge that Price “shouldn't be able to hide” what she had done. “Other organizations should know what she is capable of. Otherwise, another innocent charitable organization could find itself irreparably harmed like Betterton Volunteer Fire Company.”

Salmi argued that Price already “had been given the benefit of the doubt” as there was no recommendation for active jail time and the original charge of theft of $1,000 to less than $10,000 had been reduced to theft of less than $1,000.

Defense attorney Sandra Reno told the judge that Price had no prior record, not even a motor vehicle violation, and that she had dedicated most of her adult life – as many as 40 hours a week every week over 37 years – as a volunteer with the Betterton fire company. Reno referenced the theft as “one slip in error,” and argued that justice would best be served by allowing Price “the opportunity to make one mistake, but continue to live her life without having consequences that alter her life.” The public shame was punishment enough, she said.

In making his decision Bowman said he considered the adverse effect on the fire company, the violation of public trust and the need to send a message to the community about what is right and wrong.

But it's not always easy, the judge said, to render a decision about what he categorized in this case as “white collar crime.”

“I think something needs to be said about someone who ran their life on the straight and narrow for 61 years,” Bowman said as a way of leading into his offer of probation before judgment. “I think the message has already been sent. I think she has suffered.”

Price pleaded not guilty Oct. 5 during a rearraignment in circuit court, after Salmi presented an agreed upon statement of facts. Price was found guilty. That verdict was stricken Friday.

Maryland State Police conducted the investigation that led to Price being charged in April. The original charge of theft up to $10,000 was amended to theft less than $1,000 on June 26 during a hearing before District Court Judge Floyd L. Parks. At that time Price, through attorney Reno, requested a jury trial, so the case was automatically forwarded to circuit court. The trial was set for Dec. 6, but was scrapped due to the rearraignment Oct. 5.

At sentencing on Friday, Salmi told the court that “at first there was a larger amount that was thought to be in question. Mrs. Price's record-keeping was shoddy, and we weren't sure at first.” After reviewing fire company records dating back over several years, it was determined that the amount in question was $1,600. Price has made full restitution.

The guidelines, which are recommendations only and do not bind the judge, called for a sentence of probation to one month in jail. Salmi told Bowman that she did not think Price should be incarcerated, and that a suspended sentence of one month was appropriate.

She submitted into the record a letter from fire company President Clifford E. “Kip” Matthews Jr., and quoted from the letter to show the “substantial impact” that Price's action had on the fire company. According to the letter, the fire company lost an executive member and friend in Price. The fire company suffered financial hardship and its reputation in the community was tarnished, Matthews wrote.

Prosecutor and defense attorney agreed that this case divided the fire company.

“The fire department itself has been in turmoil. Mrs. Price is a friend, and a longtime member, and there are some who have said 'no harm, no foul' as she has paid the money back,” Salmi told the judge. “But there are others that have seen what this has done to the fire company in the eyes of the community. They are incensed and think she should be punished.”

Reno made a compelling argument for leniency. She told the judge that Price is a widow with two grown children and four grandchildren, and has lived in Kent County her entire life. She owns her own school bus and has been a bus contractor for 18 years. That's what she does for a living, drive a school bus. She was the fire company's unpaid treasurer for three years.

Price has been a fire company volunteer for more than 37 years, including 20 years that her late husband served as chief. The fire company has been a huge part of Price's life, an extension of her family, Reno told the court.

The last five years were difficult for Price, as both parents and her husband died. “She found herself struggling financially.” While she pleaded not guilty, Price acknowledged that she wrote the check with the intent to pay her mortgage but that she planned to pay back the money.

Apparently someone at the bank recognized the check and how it was made out, and brought it to the attention of someone in the fire company. Price was confronted soon after by the fire company's board of directors. She admitted wrongdoing, and promised to make restitution.

The board at that time told Price that they would not pursue criminal charges and “to take what time she needed to make restitution,” Reno told the court on Friday.

But then came a change in fire company leadership, the issue was revisited, and the decision was made to take the case to the police.

A guilty verdict would “satisfy the loudest voices of the fire company, including the president. There are certain members of the fire company that would like to see her unhappy, uncomfortable,” Reno told the court. But most of the fire company members, Reno said, have rallied around Price.

Tom Ewing and Dave Leonard were in court Friday to support Price. Ewing did not speak.

Leonard has served four years as chairman of the board of directors, under Matthews and his predecessor. He told the court that the fire company has taken in its usual amount of $8,000 to $10,000 in the last two fund drives. The town of Betterton made its annual allocation of $5,000 in May 2011, and will give the same amount this year, albeit later than usual.

Leonard also spoke to the countless hours that Price gave to the fire company. “Our fire company is a little fire company, and when something has to be done Debbie does it. She never says no.”

In asking the judge for leniency, Reno noted that for Price “having never been in trouble, now being a defendant, being found guilty, this has been punishment for her.” Price has lost her privileges with the fire company, including a length of service pension. Also, a $25,000 life insurance policy has been terminated.

“I made a grave error in judgment, and I am sorry,” a tearful Price told the judge.


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