Police warn motorists they're under suspicion

Fed-up city residents report cars spotted near illegal activities

August 11, 1999|By Peter Hermann | Peter Hermann,SUN STAFF

Linda Olep watched through her living room window as drug dealers and prostitutes conducted illicit business early Saturday in her Curtis Bay neighborhood.

She didn't dial 911, though. Too many times, she has watched criminals drive away from Hazel Street before officers could arrive. Instead, Olep wrote down the license-plate numbers of suspicious cars and later called a police hot line to report what she had seen.

Olep's surveillance is crucial to a new program dubbed Operation Relentless, in which Southern District police are compiling a detailed database of questionable activity as recorded by residents fed up with crime.

In many cases, police then send a letter on department stationery warning the car's registered owner that the vehicle was seen driven by somebody suspected of "illegal drug or prostitution activity."

It has raised some concern among defense lawyers who worry about the government compiling files on citizens based solely on complaints of people untrained in law enforcement and the legal restraints of probable cause.

But Olep, 44, who has lived in the Curtis Bay neighborhood for 20 years, said she is convinced the initiative will work.

"I have turned in three to five notebook pages of tag numbers" since May, she said. "We had a blue pickup truck here five times in one afternoon and night."

Community associations have long copied license plate numbers and sent letters warning about questionable activity. But this is one of the first times in Baltimore that the letters have come from a police agency.

Police warn in the letter that information collected by citizens "will be kept on file at the Southern District. If at a future date there is an arrest involving this vehicle (in this area), this letter may be used in court to show ongoing criminal activities."

The letter concludes, "If a conviction is obtained, then your vehicle may be subject to confiscation by the courts."

Warren A. Brown, a defense lawyer, sees a big difference in receiving such a letter from a community association and getting one from the Police Department, particularly when citizen observations could be used by police to seize property.

Police are allowed to seize property involved in drug transactions through a civil forfeiture procedure.

"They are basing a seizure on information that may or may not be correct from people who may or may not be trustworthy," Brown said. "And therein lies the danger. It is ripe for a miscarriage of justice."

Problem with secrecy

The lawyer also warned that while courts typically allow police to keep the names of informants secret, they might not be able to protect the identity of callers to the hot line if police use the information to establish a pattern of criminal misconduct.

Brown said the letter troubles him because it hints at government interference with a citizen's "First Amendment right to gather and travel the roads and come and go. Even if you did stop and talk to someone, so what? I'm not sure you should be marked as a possible sex offender."

Olep said she knows a drug or prostitution deal when she sees one.

"I'm willing to try anything to stop this," she said. "I sit out here. I watch them buy drugs. I know exactly what they are doing. I've seen the money change from hand to hand. They're out there hollering, `We have crack. We have heroin.' "

Three letters have been sent to the owners of Spare Wheels, a Glen Burnie rental company that is one of the few in the region to lease vehicles for cash, no credit cards required.

The general manager of the company -- who spoke on the condition he not be named because he feared retribution from customers -- said he was disturbed when the letters arrived. But he said he will keep them on file and might decline to rent to people who triggered the police inquiry.

"Our concern is that our vehicles were used in criminal activity," he said. "But at the same time, we can't discriminate. It's a double-edged sword. What do we do if the person says he wasn't in the neighborhood and doesn't know what the letter is talking about?"

Police said they are careful to send letters only to people whose cars are repeatedly spotted by different citizens who also can provide a detailed description of occupants and their suspicious activities.

"This gives the community a direct input into curbing drug and prostitution activity in their neighborhoods," said Maj. Elmer Dennis, commander of the Southern District, where the program is being pioneered.

A `service' by police

Dennis said he sees the letter as a service to let car owners know how their property is used. One car seen twice by two people in the district was traced to a 76-year-old Eastern Shore man who was on vacation at the time. The occupants were teen-agers.

"This is not a big brother type of thing," Dennis said. "We worded the letter carefully so as not to be absolutely accusatory."

The one-page letter opens with "Greetings to" the car owner, and informs him or her of the time and place the vehicle was seen.

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