Appeals impact unclear in arrest warrants case

Attorney general survey found some court clerks bypassed judicial review

March 23, 2002|By Jeff Barker | Jeff Barker,SUN STAFF

State prosecutors are bracing for an unknown number of legal challenges that could arise from the discovery that some Circuit Court clerks improperly bypassed judges in issuing arrest warrants - a practice so ingrained in some areas that a clerk likened it to tying a shoe.

"I'm sure people are going to try to raise the issue," said Frederick County State's Attorney Scott Rolle.

But Rolle, like other prosecutors interviewed yesterday, said it was too soon to assess the extent of the damage. State's attorneys will have to wait to see how many defendants seek to have convictions reviewed or evidence dismissed based on faulty warrants, Rolle said, and then try to salvage what cases they can.

"If you have an illegal arrest, that doesn't necessarily affect the outcome of the case," Rolle said.

An assistant attorney general's memorandum written last week says clerks in almost half of the 24 Circuit Courts have been improperly issuing warrants by themselves upon the request of state's attorneys in cases for which a criminal information was filed. An information is a prosecutor's presentation of charges.

In these cases, a judge's involvement is required to determine probable cause before an arrest.

"I just don't know if it's a tempest in a teapot or not," said Ara M. Crowe Jr., a former Baltimore prosecutor who heads the Maryland State's Attorneys' Association. "I'm sure it will be brought up at our next board meeting, and if there are remedial steps, we will explore them."

Some defense attorneys have said privately that the discovery could lead to scores or even hundreds of challenges.

"I think this was a pretty widespread practice in the smaller jurisdictions," said Baltimore attorney Michael Belsky.

Belsky represented a Frederick County man last month in getting a videotaped interrogation thrown out because a judge determined the warrant was improper.

Belsky said he called two other defense attorneys to his client's hearing to testify about a handful of other cases in the county in which warrants were also issued without a judge's involvement.

The Frederick County defendant, Perry Miller, was arrested on a domestic assault charge, then re-arrested in December 2000 for allegedly spitting on corrections officials.

It was the second arrest warrant that led Assistant Attorney General Julia Andrew to survey all of the clerks about their warrant practices.

Yesterday, Rolle acknowledged in an interview that his office should simply have informed Miller that a new charge - the spitting - was being lodged against him, rather than having him arrested. Miller was out on bail at the time.

Sandra Dalton, clerk of the Frederick County Circuit Court, said it was natural for her office to issue such warrants at the request of the state's attorney's office.

"As soon as we were made aware that this was an improper practice, it was ceased immediately," Dalton said.

Asked how many warrants had been issued in this manner, she said, "It's not something we would have thought to keep a statistic on. Do you keep a statistic on how many times you tie your shoe?"

The problem with the warrants seems to be, in part, the result of varying interpretations of criminal rules. In her memo, Andrew suggested that the rules governing the warrants were less than clear.

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