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Byron Warnken, beloved UB law professor, dies at 76

“My mother…she used to always say to me, ‘Byron, you can never get in trouble by reading the job description broadly,”’ says University of Baltimore School of Law professor Byron L. Warnken, who passed away Monday. “I always tried to follow that. I tried to do whatever I could to help my students.’ (The Daily Record File Photo/Maximilian Franz)

Byron L. Warnken, a beloved longtime University of Baltimore School of Law professor whose students never forgot him or he them, died Monday at his home in Owings Mills after a long illness. Warnken was 76.

“He was the professor who launched a thousand careers,” said attorney Timothy F. Maloney, a student of Warnken’s in the mid-1980s. “He loved the law, but he loved his law students even more.”

Warnken, who retired in 2018 due to failing health, taught primarily criminal law and procedure for 40 years at his alma mater and wrote a widely respected and often cited three-volume treatise on Maryland’s criminal procedure rules.

He placed more than 3,000 students with judges as director of UB Law’s judicial internship program for 33 years and taught a bar preparation course in which he guided anxious would-be lawyers toward the licensing test.

Warnken also served as faculty adviser to the school’s moot court board.

In honor of his service, first-year law students now vie in the intramural Byron L. Warnken Moot Court Competition. The event, like similar contests at the school, is held in the moot courtroom also named in his honor.

“Byron Warnken was the beating heart of the law school,” UB Law Dean Ronald Weich said Tuesday. “He was a professor and world-class mentor to his students.”

Warnken, unsatisfied by the longstanding practice of private and governmental law firms hiring summer associates after the students’ second year of law school, initiated UB Law’s Experience in Legal Organizations program in 1994, Weich said.

The program, dubbed EXPLOR, places students in firms during the summer after their first year — with the help and often under the guidance of Warnken’s now-practicing former students.

“He was truly ‘Mr. UB,’” Weich said, citing Warnken’s “devotion” to the school and his students’ success.

Warnken’s daughter echoed Weich’s assessment, saying it took a debilitating stroke and the onset of a Parkinson’s-like disease to force her father to retire.

Otherwise, “he would have been in front of that classroom until his last breath,” said Heather Warnken, executive director of UB Law’s Center for Criminal Justice Reform.

Attorney Brian S. Brown, a student in the mid-1980s, said Warnken’s lessons did not end when his students passed the bar.

“He was more of a teacher and a mentor than a professor,” said Brown, of Brown & Barron LLC in Baltimore. “He didn’t care if you were his current student or his student from 30 years ago. He would give his advice without hesitation.”

Brown, and Maloney, mentioned Warnken’s uncanny ability not only to recognize former students he encountered in his travels but to recall their graduation years and the grades they got in his class.

Maloney said he was particularly impressed when Warnken recognized a particular former student — or “Warnkenite” — and said he would have gotten an A had he not stumbled in answering a “Terry stop” exam question years earlier. The question focused on when police officers may briefly detain and pat down a person they reasonably suspect is armed without violating the individual’s constitutional Fourth Amendment right against unreasonable search or seizure.

“What an amazing man,” said Maloney, of Joseph, Greenwald & Laake PA in Greenbelt.

While a professor, Warnken also managed a part-time law practice, advised police officers on best practices and represented them in disciplinary proceedings.

Warnken’s most famous representation was of car passenger Jerry Lee Wilson, whom police had ordered out of the vehicle when they pulled the driver over for speeding in Baltimore County. As Wilson exited the car, he dropped cocaine to the ground leading to charges of illegal drug possession with intent to distribute.

Maryland trial and appellate courts dismissed the charges, saying the police had violated Wilson’s Fourth Amendment right against unreasonable seizure as an innocent car passenger. The state appealed that ruling to the U.S. Supreme Court, which appointed Warnken to represent Wilson.

Warnken was opposed at oral arguments on Dec. 11, 1996, by Maryland Attorney General J. Joseph Curran Jr. and U.S. Attorney General Janet Reno, who had taken the state’s side as a friend of the court.

During his argument, Warnken played foil to a de facto comedy routine by Justices Antonin Scalia and David H. Souter.

Scalia told Warnken that rather than feeling their rights were violated, passengers might instead be grateful to the police officer who orders them out of the car.

“Thank goodness,” Scalia suggested these passengers might say. “This guy was speeding.”

Souter, without missing a beat, interjected, “With Justice Scalia (driving), you can see what the passengers are feeling.”

The Supreme Court ultimately ruled for the state on a 7-2 vote on Feb. 19, 1997. Despite the loss, Warnken called his Supreme Court experience “a really special moment in his life,” his daughter said.

Warnken, a Baltimore native, came from a family of modest means and was the first male in his family to graduate high school. After leaving McDonogh School, Warnken earned his bachelor’s degree from Johns Hopkins University and spent four years in the U.S. Army, according to a biography provided through UB Law near his retirement

He then enrolled at UB Law in 1973, switched to the evening division and graduated cum laude in 1977. Later that year, he started teaching at the school as an adjunct lecturer in legal analysis and writing and became a tenure-track professor in 1978.

Shortly before his 2018 retirement, Warnken recalled the homespun advice he received years earlier.

“My mother … used to always say to me, ‘Byron, you can never get in trouble by reading the job description broadly,” Warnken said in the late winter of 2018. “I always tried to follow that. I tried to do whatever I could to help my students.”

In addition to his daughter, Warnken is survived by Bonnie, his wife of nearly 53 years; son Byron B. Warnken; sister Renee; and four grandchildren.

Bonnie, a graduate of UB Law, is an attorney and nurse. Byron B. Warnken, who graduated from UB Law in 2004, took over his father’s law practice, Warnken LLC, in 2012.  Heather graduated from Suffolk University Law School in Boston.

“He was just always mission-driven and his mission was giving opportunity to people who didn’t have opportunity,” Byron B. Warnken said of his father. “He just did it for so many.”

Visitation will be held at Ruck Towson Funeral Home on Sept. 14 and 15 from 2 p.m. to 4 p.m and from 6 p.m. to 8 p.m. both days.

A memorial service will be held Sept. 17 in the Byron L. Warnken Moot Courtroom at UB Law. The time of the service has not yet been determined.

The interment proceeding will be private.

The Warnken family requests that mourners consider making a donation to the V. Renee Warnken Scholarship Fund at UB Law in lieu of flowers.  V. Renee Warnken was the professor’s mother.