Officials deny blame for restraining orders slipping through system

State police, sheriffs, courts say problem is being addressed

November 23, 1999|By Timothy B. Wheeler | Timothy B. Wheeler,SUN STAFF

State police, sheriffs and court officials denied blame yesterday for the flaws in Maryland's system for keeping handguns away from people accused of domestic violence, but nonetheless assured legislators they were working to fix the problems.

Sloppy handwriting, staff shortages and a balky computer system figure in the failure to log thousands of civil protective orders in a statewide information network used to screen purchasers of handguns, officials said at a Senate hearing in Annapolis.

Maryland courts issue as many as 21,000 restraining orders a year, usually to shield women from abusive or threatening spouses. Local sheriffs and police departments are supposed to log the orders into state and federal computer networks, which the state police use to conduct background checks on prospective gun buyers.

Flaws in the system surfaced in September after a Laurel father was charged in the shooting deaths of his two children on the Eastern Shore.

A clerk in the Howard County sheriff's office erroneously deleted a protective order against Richard Wayne Spicknall II, enabling him to clear a police background check and buy the gun he is accused of using on his children.

Since then, sheriffs and police agencies have acknowledged problems that have resulted in many orders not being filed promptly, if at all.

Col. David B. Mitchell, superintendent of the Maryland State Police, told legislators that his agency will conduct more frequent audits of the 31 sheriffs and local police departments to ensure that they are accurately and promptly logging orders into the database.

"You have my pledge, and the pledge of my command staff, to do everything we can to improve the system," Mitchell told a joint hearing of the Budget and Judicial Proceedings committees.

Witnesses said the state has helped sheriffs reduce delays in filing the orders, but state officials have no idea how many have not been filed because of missing or incorrect information.

At least 450 restraining orders in Baltimore have not been logged in the computer system because city District Court officials failed to enter information such as birth dates, city police said. Birth dates are required to be entered into the system.

Mitchell said the state police are required by law to check on the accuracy of orders entered in the computer system. But he said future audits will try to find out how many orders are not being filed.

Sheriffs told lawmakers they lack the funds and staff to keep up with the clerical work, and they contended that the District Courts are better situated to handle the job.

Anne Arundel Sheriff George F. Johnson, president of the state sheriffs association, said orders don't get filed promptly because information is incorrect, illegible or missing. Entering information can take 10 minutes to an hour per order.

Stuart O. Simms, secretary of public safety, said many problems should be solved with the development of a statewide, computerized warrant system. That system, which has been in preparation for several years, might be ready by spring, he said.

A District Court official said her office did not want to assume the responsibility for filing the orders, but said the courts would cooperate to make the system work more smoothly.

"I don't like what I'm hearing," said Sen. Walter M. Baker, a Cecil County Democrat and chairman of the Judicial Proceedings Committee. Accusing the witnesses of "sitting there pointing fingers," Baker said, "There's somebody out there [who's] lazy and not doing their job.

"You better get together and do the job," he said.

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