A lamentable rush to judgment

March 15, 1993

Carroll residents who complain about criminal defendants getting off on technicalities ought to ponder the case of one Robert S. Morris, who spent three nights in jail.

Because Carroll law enforcement officials cavalierly ignored important details about the man's identity and the status of a warrant, an innocent man was deprived of his basic civil liberties. Taxpayers may ultimately have to foot the bill for their mistakes.

When Robert S. Morris, a 42-year-old Westminster resident, was stopped for speeding on New Year's, it was reasonable for Sykesville police officer Glenn Ruff to run his name through the national computer bank to see if he was wanted in any other jurisdiction.

But when police decided to arrest and jail Mr. Morris because he shared the same birth date, first name and had a last name similar to a fugitive wanted in Florida for kiting $4,000 in checks, the police showed a lamentable lack of judgment and a disdain for civil liberties.

Apparently, it didn't matter that the man wanted in Florida was named Robert E. Morse and was five inches taller than Mr. Morris.

The basic premise of the American criminal justice system is that the government has the burden of proving its case against the accused.

In Mr. Morris' case, local law enforcement officials took the position that if he could prove he wasn't the Florida fugitive, he could be released.

Because of their zeal to jail Mr. Morris, Carroll officials fell victim to sloppy police work in Florida.

The warrant for the fugitive Mr. Morse wasn't even valid. The police in Panama City, where the alleged theft took place, had dropped the five-year-old grand theft charges last July. But the police in Florida never bothered to remove the warrant from the data bank of the National Crime Information Center.

Even if Mr. Morris had been Mr. Morse, the police had no right to jail him without checking on the status of the Florida charge. The only right the police had was to give Mr. Morris a speeding ticket. Mr. Morris has retained an attorney; taxpayers can expect a suit to be filed.

Our legal system has all kinds of "technicalities" built in to prevent the arbitrary and capricious incarceration of innocent citizens. Carroll law enforcement officials should remember their ultimate duty is not to lock up as many people as possible, but to enforce the laws justly.

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