Drug case allegations raise doubts

Westminster officer accused of trying to plant evidence

Convictions under review

Defendants may get leverage when making claims of misconduct

February 18, 2000|By Sheridan Lyons | Sheridan Lyons,SUN STAFF

Judges tell jurors that a police officer's testimony doesn't outweigh that of other citizens -- but in reality it often does.

Defendants in drug cases often tell their attorneys the drugs weren't theirs, but -- even when the lawyer believes it -- the defendant's claim doesn't ever get to the trial stage in Carroll County.

Observers and participants expect these facts of courthouse life to change in Carroll, where prosecutors are reviewing about 100 pending cases and defense attorneys are reviewing years of convictions as a result of allegations by two officers that a Westminster city police officer indicated a willingness to plant drugs.

With the defense ready and waiting to attack the officer's credibility, "bringing these cases to trial would just produce a circus atmosphere in the court system," said Carroll State's Attorney Jerry F. Barnes.

In addition to his ethical responsibilities as an officer of the court, a prosecutor also must disclose information helpful to the defense.

The U. S. Supreme Court set that obligation on prosecutors and the law enforcement community in 1963 in Brady vs. Maryland, said Byron L. Warnken, professor of criminal and constitutional law at the University of Baltimore School of Law.

In the Carroll situation, he said, this obligation applies "absolutely. Certainly any case where this office was involved in the chain of custody of evidence, especially, it certainly become an issue of credibility," he said. "It's probably a fight that a prosecutor would not want to fight."

Judson K. Larrimore, the county's senior public defender who has spent 15 years defending indigent clients in Carroll's courtrooms, said his clients frequently complain that part of the evidence wasn't there or not where it was supposed to be, or that they never saw it before.

"The fact that this is frequent does not mean that someone is planting evidence," he said. "That [claim] does not get reviewed because that gets pleaded."

He said it's difficult to base a defense on a claim that a police officer lied.

"A judge can tell a jury not to give the testimony of a police officer greater weight," he said. "As a practical matter, many people are convicted and ultimately sent to jail solely on the testimony of a police officer. That is why this is so important."

Defense lawyers said they will consider more seriously presenting their clients' claims of police misconduct, noting that recent events might create a reasonable doubt in any kind of case involving police.

Michael S. Levin, a defense lawyer for 22 years, said that if misconduct allegations are believed against one officer, the defense could try to raise reasonable doubt in cases involving other police agencies.

"It creates maybe now a more friendly forum for us," said Brian Green, an assistant public defender and former city prosecutor. "It has planted the seed, and maybe now defendants will feel, `Someone will listen to me.' "

Some compared the current climate at courthouses to a television drama rather than the workaday plowing through the dockets, in which the vast majority of criminal cases are plea bargained.

That probably will continue: In some of the dismissed cases, prosecutors obtained guilty pleas on other charges, said Theresa M. Adams, a senior prosecutor who oversees drug cases.

Felony charges dropped by the prosecution -- nolle prosequi -- can legally be revived because they never went to trial, said Circuit Judge Raymond E. Beck Sr., the administrative judge, but they rarely are. He couldn't recall hearing any case in 10 years in which the defense claimed at trial that drugs had been planted.

"In Carroll County, to charge an officer with planting drugs -- it's something you'd see on television," the judge said.

Many of those whose cases are being tossed have been described as less than innocent -- known to police and prosecutors -- and are expected back in the criminal justice system. Those who have a criminal record are more vulnerable to being charged and less credible if they claim police misconduct.

"It's easy not to be sympathetic to them," Arnold said of the accused whose cases were dismissed. "But when the average citizen really looks at this, their rights are no more or less. The state has to prove you guilty beyond a reasonable doubt, whether you're rich or poor or whatever."

Susan Goering, executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Maryland, said, "Part of what our Constitution is all about is our integrity, and having an honest police force is a basic tenet of good government, basic to the integrity of the justice system. A justice system breaks down if witnesses can't be trusted in court. There's just a whole slew of rippling effects.

"The Supreme Court recognized that there may be some people who go free in order to protect the innocent," she said. "Throwing out cases is a deterrent. It really does work, if police know their cases are going to go down the tube if they do dishonest things. You have to take the long view of the issue: Nobody in Carroll County or anywhere in America would want to be subjected to this. Law enforcement has enormous power over private citizens. Juries and others believe them, and that even adds to their power. So we as private citizens are at their mercy."

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