Weeding out shaky cases

Arrests: Police arrest suspects, but prosecutors decide who gets charged and who goes free.

January 27, 2002|By Del Quentin Wilber | Del Quentin Wilber,SUN STAFF

A 40-YEAR-OLD MAN was holding an open can of beer at the corner of Charles and 20th streets one afternoon last fall. An officer spotted the man, arrested him for having an open container of alcohol and sent him to the Central Booking and Intake Center to be charged.

Several hours later, a machine at central booking printed the officer's report on the incident. In seconds, prosecutor Jeanne Canal read the document and declined to charge the man. He was set free.

There was nothing unusual about the arrest or Canal's decision - both typical of what happens every day on Baltimore streets and in prosecutors' offices.

In July 2000, when Baltimore prosecutors took over from police the job of charging suspects with crimes, city and state officials hoped the change would help reduce backlogs of petty and weak arrests that were strangling an overburdened criminal justice system. Before that, police had charged suspects. Prosecutors often did not see a case for about a month, until just before a defendant's first hearing.

So far, prosecutors appear to be accomplishing their goal. Last year, they declined to prosecute 26 percent of the suspects who were arrested and brought to the Central Intake and Booking Center. In November, the rate shot up to 31 percent.

But the number of dropped cases has raised questions about the quality and purpose of many arrests - and about the training and effectiveness of police.

Civil libertarians worry that police are arresting some people without legal cause. "It's a number that makes you say, `Why?'" says Joseph Trotter, a professor in the Justice Programs Office at American University. "There's a reason there. An inefficiency in the system, a dysfunction," says Trotter, who has studied criminal justice systems in many cities.

Yet, those at the center of the debate have different points of view.

Prosecutors complain that police sometimes leave them little choice but to dismiss a case because they have insufficient information. The top city prosecutor, State's Attorney Patricia C. Jessamy, doesn't reach any sweeping conclusions. "There is a difference between policing and prosecution," she says.

Police Commissioner Edward T. Norris says prosecutors should not drop so many cases and should work harder to help officers who might not explain the case well in a report. "They may not be slam dunks, but they deserve to go to trial," Norris says. "We are not blameless. But I'd like to see a middle ground here."

Mayor Martin O'Malley defends the arrest practices of the Police Department: "If people want to get locked up 20 times for loitering in a week, we'll oblige them." Loitering cases are usually dropped by prosecutors because they're hard to prove.

Though Norris denies that his officers practice "zero tolerance," - a controversial strategy of attacking very minor offenses, which helps police solve more serious crimes - many officers interviewed said that is exactly what they are doing.

Last year, prosecutors reviewed more than 60,000 arrests made by police agencies in Baltimore. They included such crimes as drug possession, trespassing and burglary, and more serious ones, like drug dealing, assault and armed robbery.

Prosecutors review only "on-view" arrests, those for crimes that are witnessed by police or quickly solved. Police also charge thousands of suspects every year in warrants obtained from District Court commissioners, cases that are not reviewed by prosecutors until defendants appear in court.

Of the cases they drop on the day of arrest, prosecutors say most can't be proved in court. Nearly two-thirds of the cases shelved in November fell into this category, including charges of drug dealing, assault, prostitution and loitering. In other cases, like public urination, the arrest took care of the problem - or "abated" it - and was considered enough.

The number of dropped cases concerns the American Civil Liberties Union of Maryland, which says it shows police are arresting people for crimes that they know will go nowhere in the court system. "Essentially, we have, in reality, a police officer being not only the cop but also the judge and jury and sentencing a person to central booking," says Dwight Sullivan, an ACLU lawyer.

Norris says officers are not exceeding their authority. "That's absolutely not true," he says, adding that the level of proof needed for an arrest is much lower than what prosecutors need in court. "There are different burdens."

When prosecutors started reviewing cases, they rejected fewer than 20 percent of arrests. But in December 2000, they began to drop more cases of the kind abated by arrest, and the rejected cases jumped to 25 percent in March. From June through December, prosecutors rejected about 27 percent of cases, data show.

Last month, prosecutors declined to bring 1,243 cases out of 5,021 they reviewed, or about 25 percent.

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