`Federal Day' roundup nets 74 suspects

Those arrested Wednesday face trials in U.S. courts under new program

August 16, 2002|By Gail Gibson | Gail Gibson,SUN STAFF

Dozens of people suspected of toting guns or drugs found themselves facing the possibility of stiff punishment in the U.S. court system after an intensive, daylong sweep of some of Baltimore's most dangerous neighborhoods, authorities said yesterday.

Officials said the city's first "Federal Day" netted 74 suspects and helped spread the word that U.S. authorities would target the city's worst street crimes. Not every person arrested will be tried in federal court, but authorities said that the threat alone prompted many suspects to quickly divulge valuable information.

"We can't take everybody, but we're going to take the baddest," U.S. Attorney Thomas M. DiBiagio said yesterday during a news conference at Baltimore's federal courthouse to announce the results of Wednesday's sweep. "The biggest, the baddest, the worst offenders are going to end up in the courtrooms downstairs."

The crime-fighting strategy, which relies on equal doses of surprise and intimidation, calls for certain suspects arrested on a determined - but unannounced - day to face federal prosecution. DiBiagio agreed this summer to test the program at the urging of Baltimore Police Commissioner Edward T. Norris.

On Wednesday, about 300 city police officers and 27 federal agents from the Drug Enforcement Administration and the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms spread out across sections of east and west Baltimore.

Suspects were brought to a closed library branch on the city's west side, where news of the sweep quickly spread. Baltimore State's Attorney Patricia C. Jessamy said one of her assistant prosecutors was greeted outside the building by a young boy who warned: "Lady, you don't want to go in there. There's lots of police. All kinds."

Most of the individuals arrested were charged with drug or gun possession. Many quickly volunteered information about other criminal activity to avoid federal charges - in one instance offering police information about an unsolved homicide.

"I'm very happy with the results," Norris said yesterday, noting that Wednesday's haul included "a lot of great information."

The push for DiBiagio to adopt "Federal Day" came after criticism by Baltimore Mayor Martin O'Malley of the new U.S. attorney's policies on prosecuting city gun cases.

DiBiagio has said that his office would pursue firearm cases in federal court only if suspects face potentially longer sentences than they would in state court. The prosecutor has acknowledged that that would mean fewer federal gun cases in Baltimore, even as the mayor and DiBiagio's political ally, Rep. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr., have repeatedly called for federal authorities to take a greater number of gun cases.

"We're here to make a difference," DiBiagio said yesterday. "Sometimes it's in numbers, sometimes it's not. But we're all committed to reducing gun violence in Baltimore."

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