Letter of law reads differently on street, in court


April 04, 1991|By MICHAEL OLESKER

Here is the frustration of cops on the street: Even when they've got the bad guys cold, even when the judge admits there's clear guilt, the law sometimes works against itself.

Five weeks ago, Kennedy Avenue and The Alameda: Two city police, Charles Smoot and Anita Hicks, watch a jeep run a stop sign, turn at Harford Road and head south. They pursue the jeep and pull it over.

In the front seat are two men, both of them tall and beefy. Smoot recognizes the driver's name from his license. He's got a reputation for drug-related shootings in Northeast Baltimore and an arrest record that includes handgun violations, assault and obstruction of justice.

The passenger, Smoot recognizes by face. Same suspicions of drug-related shootings, and an arrest record for assault with intent to murder and cocaine possession.

Smoot asks the two men to get out of the car. He pats down the driver's pants and finds several bullets in his right pocket. Now he pats down the driver's torso. There's something more than a chest there: It's a bulletproof vest with a metal plate for extra reinforcement in the middle.

''What's this for?'' says Smoot.

''I've been shot before,'' explains the driver, thinking quickly but inaccurately.

The situation feels dangerous to the two police. Now Anita Hicks searches the car and finds a fully loaded .357-caliber Magnum handgun behind the driver's seat. The handgun is not registered. The driver is arrested for possession of an illegal weapon. The passenger is searched, comes up clean, and is released.

On March 19, the case comes to Northeast District Court. A defense attorney argues that the jeep never should have been stopped, that it's an instance of two inner city black men being halted merely for their skin color and not for a traffic violation.

Smoot, who is white, and Hicks, who is black, shake their heads in disagreement.

Judge Keith Mathews throws the case out, declaring that the police had no right to go through the suspect's jeep without a search-and-seizure warrant.

Yesterday, Judge Mathews said this: ''It's obvious the guy was a criminal. I mean, he's got bullets, he's wearing a bulletproof vest. It's kind of obvious, isn't it? I can understand why people would be upset with me. But you still have to go by the law.''

The law says the cops have to have probable cause for searching a suspect's property. But what, exactly, is probable cause? On the street and in the courtroom, probable cause is sometimes defined in different ways.

''Probable cause,'' Officer Smoot said yesterday, ''is in the eye of the beholder.''

''Probable cause,'' Northeastern District prosecutor Peter Saar said, ''is sometimes a matter of being on the front lines or being a Monday morning quarterback.''

In the city of Baltimore, which has fallen siege to those with guns, the numbers along the front lines grow larger: a chilling 305 homicides one year ago, mostly with guns, and 76 homicides so far this year. A year ago on this date, the figure was 71. And these numbers are mere fractions of the various other crimes committed routinely at the point of a gun.

In the neighborhood where Smoot and Hicks stopped the jeep, there were 36 calls to police for shots fired or armed persons spotted in the first 10 weeks of 1991. Many were drug-related.

The two officers were assigned to a special detail trying to curb drugs and weapons in the neighborhood. That they stumbled onto a gun case from a routine traffic violation seemed a bolt from heaven. That Officer Smoot recognized both men as career criminals seemed clear probable cause to search the jeep.

Instead, it was a mirror of the legal frustrations that many in law enforcement bemoan.

''Police officers,'' prosecutor Saar said, ''are the ones on the front lines. They know what's going on in the streets. You stop somebody with bullets and a vest, it's clearly a dangerous situation.

''Monday morning rehashing is a different story. It's reviewing the cold outlines of cases. It's reviewing them in a sterile environment, not in the hostile environment of the streets. I don't say judges don't know what's going on, but each judge has a different standard for what's going on.''

Judge Mathews, said Saar, questioned why the police stopped the jeep in the first place. The police pointed out the stop sign violation. But the judge, Saar said, pointed out that the police were detailed to look for guns and drugs.

''What does that mean?'' said Saar. ''Do you ignore one crime because you're specifically on the lookout for another crime? I mean, you don't ignore rape or homicide just because you're looking for drugs.

''In this case, a man ran a stop sign. Why go after a traffic violation if you're looking for drugs? Well, it's still breaking a law. Also, traffic violations sometimes lead to guns or drugs.''

In this case, that's exactly what happened. The cops thought they'd made an honest case in a legal way. The judge saw it differently. The law of the courts and the law of the streets are sometimes not the same thing.

Baltimore Sun Articles
Please note the green-lined linked article text has been applied commercially without any involvement from our newsroom editors, reporters or any other editorial staff.