Police insistence on photo irks driver Baltimore County practice disputed

April 18, 1993|By Glenn Small | Glenn Small,Staff Writer

A Middle River man who was stopped and questioned by Baltimore County police has filed a complaint against the department, alleging that officers bullied him into allowing them to take a Polaroid photograph of him -- even though he was not arrested, charged or suspected of a crime.

Charles J. Dalton, 38, a U.S. Postal Service worker, said that the night he was stopped, county police took his driver's license and refused to return it until he submitted to having the picture taken. He said they told him he would have to go to the Motor Vehicle Administration and get a new license.

"They were insistent upon taking my picture," Mr. Dalton recalled. "I refused several times. . . . If I haven't violated any laws, I couldn't see why I have to have my picture taken."

What concerns him is that police use such photographs in lineups, raising the possibility that a person who is the subject of such a photo could be mistakenly identified as a criminal.

The incident involving Mr. Dalton occurred in December, and he said it took him months of badgering, and finally an appeal to the local chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, before county police would even give him an official complaint form to file.

After appealing to Dunbar Brooks, a school board member who heads the Dundalk chapter of the NAACP, Mr. Dalton got the complaint form, which he filed in February. Now the case is under internal investigation, a police spokesman said.

It's not the first time someone has questioned the Baltimore County police practice of allegedly taking improper photographs people they stop to question.

Last summer, a group of teen-agers was stopped by police, questioned and then photographed, even though they were not arrested or suspected of any crime, said Stuart Comstock-Gay, executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union.

The ACLU persuaded the department to destroy or return the pictures last summer. The ACLU didn't pursue the matter because "we thought it was an isolated incident," Mr. Comstock-Gay said, adding that no such incident has been brought to the organization's attention from any other jurisdiction in Maryland.

According to police department rules, an officer may stop and question someone if the officer has a "reasonable and articulable suspicion" that the person may be armed or has committed a crime.

Sgt. Stephen Doarnberger, a county police spokesman, said that it is proper for police to photograph someone without an arrest if the person is stopped close to the scene of a recent crime and tends to match a description of a suspect.

Officers use the photographs to put together so-called "photo lineups" -- groups of at least six pictures of similar-looking people, which are shown to crime victims or witnesses.

Police investigators consider the photo lineup a key tool in identifying criminals, and the identifications they produce are often used in court as evidence against a suspect.

That use of the photos worries Mr. Comstock-Gay, just as it does Mr. Dalton.

The chance that someone will be named mistakenly as a criminal is always there as long as police keep showing that person's photograph, Mr. Comstock-Gay said.

"It's an outrageous practice, them taking pictures of people who have never been charged with anything," he said.

BTC Mr. Comstock-Gay agreed that it's all right for police to take someone's picture if he's stopped close to a crime scene and matches the suspect's general description. But once a person has been ruled out as a suspect, the pictures should be destroyed or returned, he said.

"If they think they did something, that's one thing," Mr. Comstock-Gay said. But "I think the idea that they take pictures, just so they can have them [is] a dangerous practice."

Police said they questioned Mr. Dalton because he was outside an apartment complex known for drug dealing and a passenger had allegedly left his car to purchase drugs.

Mr. Dalton said he knew nothing about the apartment complex and was just giving a friend a ride there to pick up a Christmas present.

He insists he didn't know what his passenger intended, and even if his passenger did something wrong, he did not.

"I've been driving since I was 18 years old, and I've never been stopped like this before.

"I grew up in Catholic schools," he continued. "I studied in the monastery for two years to become a monk. I've spent my whole life trying to do what's right. . . . My conscience is clear, but I think it was wrong for them to take my picture like that."

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