Police powers of arrest under study Judges favor shifting authority to prosecutors

December 11, 1998|By Caitlin Francke | Caitlin Francke,SUN STAFF

In Baltimore, punishment for criminal defendants sometimes comes before their cases are tried. That's not justice, Baltimore's chief judge said yesterday.

Yet it is so common and so long-standing, people in the system have special names for the way suspected criminals spend weeks or months in jail only to come into court and see their cases dropped or be sentenced to jail time they have served.

The police call it "abatement by arrest." BaltimoreCircuit Administrative Judge Joseph H. H. Kaplan calls it "summary judgment."

The police "have a job. They are trying to get these people off the corners and off the street. And they are doing their job," Kaplan said. But he adds, "It's just not right for them to charge people when you can't prove the case and have them sit in jail for a long time."

This entrenched system -- dug in even deeper by the war on drugs -- might change soon. A report commissioned by Kaplan from the Criminal Court Technical Assistance Project recommends that prosecutors, not police, charge suspects to reduce the number of weak cases clogging the courts.

Baltimore judges, prosecutors, police and defense attorneys support the proposal to shift charging authority. After a decision is made on the matter, a recommendation would be sent to the Court of Appeals, which would have to approve a change in state rules.

Maryland's Chief Judge Robert M. Bell said he "applauds" the proposed change. He expressed concern about people being improperly charged.

"People do have rights, do they not? We are a system of laws," Bell said. "The prosecutor is well-versed in what the laws are, and he also has a sense of how to evaluate the case. If you bring that all together, it has to be an improvement over what we have now."

The report says that police, operating with little supervision, many times charge people with crimes more serious than the evidence supports and with charges that won't stand up in court. A prosecutor might not review the case for as long as a month.

Police, lawyers and judges agree that the fundamental problem is that police are not lawyers, extensively educated in criminal law.

A police officer "is totally on his own," said Richard M. Karceski, a Baltimore criminal defense attorney. "I think there is a certain amount of ignorance. They have a tendency to say, 'Rather than do too little, I'll do too much because we can always dismiss it.' "

Police also want to show the public they are trying to clean up neighborhoods, said Domenic R. Iamele, a defense attorney. If they see a group of young men gathering at a corner, they might arrest them just to get them off the street, and charge them with loitering. Or they might charge a group with possession of one bag of drugs.

"If you sweep the street corner it is quite conceivable that more than one of the 10 people there had nothing to do with the possession of the contraband, but all 10 get swept up," Iamele said.

Police say they are just doing their job.

"The legislative framework which is currently in place is the framework which officers abide by when arresting and charging suspects," said Robert W. Weinhold Jr., a Baltimore police spokesman.

Defense attorneys worry that the broad police power leads to abuse. Attorney Warren A. Brown said some officers do not even come to court when their arrests are set for trial. Such cases are usually dismissed.

Many arrests are not prosecuted because of lack of evidence or witness cooperation, court officials say.

Nearly 60 percent of the 85,532 criminal charges brought by police did not go to trial in Baltimore's misdemeanor District Court last year, state statistics show. In one month in Baltimore's higher court, about 25 percent of the cases were not tried.

"It's no more than harassment," Brown said. "Just think if 60 percent of the children in a teacher's class flunked. You would look at that and say something is not right."

Kaplan said that in the war on drugs, many cases charged as felonies are really misdemeanors. He said law-enforcement policies have changed over the past years to lower the amount of drugs used to justify a felony charge.

More serious charges mean higher bail and a greater likelihood the person will sit in jail -- at a high price tag for taxpayers. Felony charges guarantee a long wait for a trial date in the backlogged Circuit Court, where more than 5,000 cases await trial -- 80 percent of them drug crimes.

"The public doesn't care if they are convicted or not. They just want them off the street," Kaplan said. "But this way of doing it is not going to solve the problem. You just clog the system with a lot of nonviolent people. Even if you keep them off the street for 90 days, they are going to be back on the street."

Pub Date: 12/11/98

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