Prosecution of Baltimore gun crimes to decrease

U.S. attorney to take more drug cases, defying mayor, ally

January 04, 2002|By Gail Gibson | Gail Gibson,SUN STAFF

Maryland's new U.S. attorney said yesterday that his office would prosecute fewer city gun crimes, despite long-standing calls from his own political benefactor and Baltimore's mayor for federal authorities to pursue more gun cases as a way to help reduce street violence.

An unapologetic Thomas M. DiBiagio said federal prosecutors in Baltimore instead would take on a greater number of complex drug conspiracy and violent crime cases. In an interview, he said targeting the city's worst criminals would have a more lasting impact than simply pursuing large numbers of relatively minor gun violations.

"To do it, you've got to do it right," DiBiagio said, laying out for the first time his plans for using the federal courts to help ease Baltimore's violence and repeating his intent to make political corruption and white-collar crimes top priorities.

DiBiagio's approach appeared yesterday to have support from the city's top police official, if not its top elected official.

Mayor Martin O'Malley said he welcomed more federal prosecutions of drug cases and violent crimes. But O'Malley said those complicated investigations could not catch the same number of offenders who could be targeted with more straightforward gun charges.

"To reduce by half the number of gun cases you take doesn't seem like a very prudent course," O'Malley said, estimating the impact of DiBiagio's plan. "How many drug conspiracy cases can you do in a year?"

The new prosecutor - on the job four months - first drew public criticism from O'Malley last month, when the mayor complained that a change in the criteria for gun crime prosecutions meant fewer city cases were winding up in federal court. O'Malley has long pushed for stepped-up federal gun crime prosecutions, a position echoed by Rep. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr., a Baltimore County Republican who urged the Bush administration to appoint DiBiagio.

Under Project Disarm, a federal anti-gun initiative begun by former U.S. Attorney Lynne A. Battaglia, a defendant in Baltimore could be prosecuted under the federal felon-in-possession law if he had just one previous felony conviction.

DiBiagio said he would require that a defendant have two previous convictions to qualify. He said the change is consistent with a directive from Attorney General John D. Ashcroft that instructed federal prosecutors to aggressively pursue gun crimes, but not in instances where defendants could face equal or harsher punishment in state courts.

The change appears to have revived a debate about the role of the federal courts in curbing street crimes first begun between Republican Ehrlich and Democrat Battaglia - and playing out between Democrat O'Malley and Republican DiBiagio.

Ehrlich, a vocal critic of Battaglia's original plans to pursue the "worst of the worst" with federal gun prosecutions, has taken a different position on DiBiagio's seemingly similar approach. Ehrlich said yesterday that the bottom line was whether the prosecutor's plans meant less crime and fewer murders in the city.

"I think that Martin O'Malley, Bob Ehrlich and Tom DiBiagio all can agree that a lower number of murders in Baltimore City would be success," Ehrlich said. "You can't measure success just by `X' number of prosecutions. Success is how safe is the city."

Baltimore Police Commissioner Edward T. Norris said yesterday that he also generally supported DiBiagio's plans. Norris said in an interview that he had met three times with DiBiagio in recent months and believed that the new prosecutor's crime-fighting strategy could work.

"Obviously, we'd like to see both - the gun cases and the other," Norris said. But, the commissioner added, "I'm optimistic. If the office is going to do drug conspiracies and violent street crimes, I think we're going to get where we want to be."

Ehrlich said he had not talked with DiBiagio in detail about his plans for pursuing gun crimes. He said he would not hesitate to publicly raise concerns if he had them about the new prosecutor, even one from his party who also is a longtime friend.

Asked yesterday whether he expected pressure from Ehrlich to take more gun cases, DiBiagio said, "There is one thing that is completely understood - I run the U.S. attorney's office."

The emphasis on broader violent crimes and narcotics conspiracies is one of several changes, small and large, DiBiagio has implemented at the 65-attorney office since he started the job in early September. DiBiagio has repeatedly said he wants the office to emphasize the basics, with pursuit of public corruption and white collar crimes at the top of his list.

DiBiagio has told Norris that city police would be allowed to bring cases directly to federal court, even in cases that were not jointly investigated with federal agents. In meetings with federal law enforcement, DiBiagio has said he was unsatisfied with the quality and quantity of the federal cases brought in recent years.

In house, DiBiagio has implemented an office dress code, requiring all attorneys to wear business attire. His aim, DiBiagio said, is to improve the overall reputation and effectiveness of Maryland's U.S. attorney's office, known for its aggressive prosecutions of political figures as high as former Vice President Spiro T. Agnew.

"I came in and said, `Listen, for 50 years this office has had the reputation of being one of the best law firms in this state, and it doesn't have that reputation now,'" DiBiagio said yesterday. "Clearly, there is a lot of professional fulfillment coming to a law firm that's one of the best, but there's also a lot of pride in making a law firm one of the best."

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