A renewed campaign by Baltimore police to pose as drug dealers and round up addicts is being met with skepticism by prosecutors who, fearing claims of entrapment, are reluctant to take most cases to court.
Few of the more than 300 people arrested since June have been convicted. Most of their cases have been thrown out before trial - the only jail time being the hours spent waiting for an initial bail hearing.
"I would like to see more being prosecuted than are being prosecuted now," said city Police Commissioner Edward T. Norris. "I'm not going to stop doing the stings."
State's Attorney Patricia C. Jessamy said officers need better training in writing statements of probable cause, legal documents that justify criminal charges. "They should be doing it in a way we can get convictions," she said.
Police have conducted 16 "reverse stings" since June 8 and arrested 326 people, more than one-third of whom live outside the city. They have seized $14,690 and 93 cars.
Neither police nor Jessamy's office could provide statistics on how many arrests resulted in convictions. Jessamy said the numbers weren't kept after the first few operations.
But both acknowledge that most suspects never set foot in a courtroom after their arrests. Their harshest penalty is their brief incarceration immediately after arrest and the two weeks fighting city bureaucracy to get their cars back.
That is one of the prime motivating factors behind the stings: inconveniencing suburban drug buyers who use Baltimore neighborhoods as narcotics supermarkets.
"County residents should know that when they come into Baltimore City to buy drugs, they are going to be arrested and their cars are going to be seized," said Lt. Michael Tabor, who runs the weekly initiatives.
Police can keep a seized car for up to 45 days to investigate whether it was used in the drug trade. Most seized in reverse stings have been returned.
"When you take their cars away from them, that hurts them more than anything," Tabor said.
On Friday, undercover officers hit the area around North Rose and McElderry streets. Within an hour, a white police van parked on a vacant lot was full of suspects, most of whom lived far from the East Baltimore neighborhood.
None would talk publicly about their ordeal. "I did something stupid," one man said. Another suspect's wife or girlfriend emerged from a corner bar and yelled to the handcuffed man: "Bail yourself out."
A 50-year-old Annapolis man arrested trying to buy $10 of marijuana two weeks ago said he comes to Baltimore because the penalties for getting caught are light.
"In Anne Arundel County, they are tough," said the man, who consented to an interview on the condition he not be named. He was arrested at Edmondson Avenue and North Mount Street - a notoriously violent area.
"The hustlers on the street look at you like a business customer," he said. "The drug markets are so established in Baltimore City that you drive down the street and there are dozens of people who wave you down."
Reverse drug stings are nothing new. Former Police Commissioner Thomas C. Frazier used them for years, though few people were convicted. City police haven't used the tactic much in the past two years.
Judges said police agencies across the state have used the tactic with varying degrees of success.
Chief District Judge Martha F. Rasin said the cases send up the red flag of entrapment. "It's one of those things that doesn't feel right," she said, quoting a typical defense: "`I wasn't out shopping, but this guy wanted to sell me something.' Your constitutional antenna goes up."
There are several hurdles that police must overcome to win in court, police and prosecutors said. Buying illegal drugs is never clear-cut. "Give me five" for $5 worth of cocaine, or "Give me some ready" for ready rock crack cocaine, is the common terminology.
Another problem is that drugs never exchange hands. The charge is attempted possession, or attempted conspiracy. In a city where drug possession rarely results in jail time, the act of trying to buy drugs barely registers on an overflowing court docket.
Tabor said that when his officers returned to the use of reverse stings this summer, they wrote one- and two-sentence reports, and defendants were being set free.
As of this month, police are trying something different. Undercover officers, dressed in baggy pants and gold chains around their necks, make sure the customer flashes or hands over the cash.
The officers tell them to walk around the corner to get their drugs, and an arrest team slaps on the handcuffs. Tabor said this technique has started winning convictions in some cases, with jail sentences of 30 days.
"Show me the money," Jessamy said of what is needed to win a conviction.
"We're learning," Tabor said.
Defense lawyers argue that the stings don't put a ding in the city's drug and crime problem.