Prosecutor, judge say police absent Officers often skip court appearances, state's attorney says

Cases sometimes dropped

Police commissioner promises to enforce rules if given names

December 28, 1998|By Caitlin Francke | Caitlin Francke,SUN STAFF

Baltimore's top prosecutor and a city judge have complained to the police commissioner that officers are not showing up to testify in an "alarming" number of criminal cases. The practice has resulted in charges being dropped in court.

State's Attorney Patricia C. Jessamy wrote Commissioner Thomas C. Frazier last month that officers have not appeared in 1,151 cases over the "past few months." In the letter, obtained by The Sun, Jessamy wrote that the number represents only "the tip of the iceberg" because prosecutors are reluctant to report missing officers.

Circuit Judge David B. Mitchell told Frazier that in 16 days this fall, officers did not appear for one-quarter of the 202 criminal cases in his courtroom. Those cases were not prosecuted.

Officers are critical to criminal cases because their testimony is often the strongest evidence that prosecutors have. The failure of officers to appear has meant that some defendants have spent time in jail awaiting an appearance in court only to have their cases dropped.

Frazier has acknowledged the problem and said he will investigate every incident. Officers are punished for not appearing in court, he said, but he can't do anything until he knows who they are. "It's an area of concern. Raw numbers don't help me. I need to know names and times," Frazier said recently. Jessamy's Nov. 17 letter does not list the officers' names.

Jessamy refused to comment on the letter, which does not provide details such as the total number of cases involved or how long her office tracked the delinquency.

Judges have echoed Jessamy's complaint and say they are frustrated by cases that end without prosecution because of officers. Mitchell wrote Frazier in October because he was concerned by the number of officers not showing up for trials on misdemeanor charges, such as drug possession and theft.

"Arresting the person is only half the job," Mitchell said. "Then you have to find them guilty in court."

The problem raises many issues, including the possible violation of defendants' civil rights, he said. "Why are we wasting money in jail time when people are not prosecuted?"

No one knows why the officers are not showing up for trial dates. Frazier offered that an officer could be in another courtroom, may not have received the summons or could have had an emergency.

Sometimes it boils down to a communication problem, Mitchell said. Officers may not call the judges or the prosecutors to say they cannot make it to court, which would allow prosecutors to postpone cases.

Mitchell said after he told Frazier of the problem, officer attendance rates improved in his court.

Officers are supposed to be fined $50 if they miss one court appearance, $100 if they miss two and be suspended from the force for missing three, Frazier said.

According to Jessamy, prosecutors dropped charges in 43 percent of the cases where an officer did not appear. Another 30 percent of the cases were placed on the inactive docket, where cases are dormant for a year if the defendant stays out of trouble. About 14 percent of the cases were postponed.

One prosecutor wanted a judge to order the arrest of an officer so he would appear in court, according to Jessamy's letter. Jessamy declined to follow through, but her letter doesn't say why.

One Wednesday morning this month in a city District Court courtroom, seven criminal cases -- mainly drug possessions -- were not prosecuted because officers did not appear in court. A total of 71 cases were scheduled for the morning.

Defendant Nadine T. Thompson spent 34 days in jail -- at a cost of $55 a day for $1,870 -- waiting for her trial on drug possession charges. Her case was over in minutes when Officer Edward T. Rigby did not appear in court to testify. Thompson was set free that day.

"Nine out of 10 times [the officers] don't show up," said Thompson, 26, who has a lengthy criminal record. Thompson said she did not have the three capsules of heroin she was accused of tossing away in front of Rigby and she planned to argue that in court. Rigby's testimony was crucial -- he was the central witness -- for the prosecution's case, according to court records.

Another man recently in court faced four years in prison on drug charges. Police charged him in July after watching him allegedly use drugs while driving his car on North Avenue. Police say they found 16 vials of cocaine and a bag of heroin in his car.

None of that mattered Dec. 14 when Detective Joseph Comma did not appear in court. "It's your lucky day," District Judge C. Yvonne Holt-Stone told the man. "You are free to go."

Rigby and Comma did not return repeated telephone calls seeking comment.

Frazier said he is working to better coordinate court appearances. Two police districts have placed liaisons in court to call police in from the street when they are needed. Frazier said he is hoping to expand the program to cover all nine police districts by April 1.

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