New city chief would do well to keep Ark. ruling in mind

January 25, 2003|By GREGORY KANE

A CAVEAT FOR Kevin Clark, Baltimore's newest police commissioner who comes to us, once again, courtesy of the Big Apple:

Beware Sharlene Wilson.

Clark may never have heard of Wilson. Most Baltimoreans would claim they haven't either. But Wilson was in the news this past month.

Not that Wilson lives in Baltimore, mind you. Far from it. The woman hails from Malvern, Ark. On Dec. 31, 1992, state police - making use of Arkansas' no-knock law - burst into Wilson's house and seized drugs, a gun and ammunition. They caught her as she flushed what drugs she could down the toilet.

After the law slapped Wilson with a 31-year sentence, she did the only thing she could do: scream about a gross violation of civil liberties. Those darned cops, Wilson maintained, hadn't knocked and thus violated her Fourth Amendment rights. The Arkansas Supreme Court didn't see it that way. Nothing, that court concluded, in the Fourth Amendment's prohibition of illegal searches and seizures was violated by the no-knock law.

The case wound its way to the U.S. Supreme Court, where the much-maligned Justice Clarence Thomas "found that the Fourth Amendment's protection against unreasonable searches and seizures included the common-law principle of knock and announce," according to the "Oxford Guide To United States Supreme Court Decisions."

Thus it was that 10 years after her arrest, Wilson's name was bandied about Baltimore, when State's Attorney Patricia Jessamy announced this month that her office was dropping attempted-murder and other charges against Lewis Cauthorne, the man who shot and wounded four police officers during a drug raid in November on his Northeast Baltimore home.

Police said an anonymous source had told them drugs were being sold at Cauthorne's house and got a warrant for the raid. Cauthorne, his mother and girlfriend said they heard neither a knock nor a shout of "Police!" and thought robbers - or worse - were invading the home.

Jessamy, in a news conference held in the Clarence M. Mitchell Jr. Courthouse a little over two weeks ago, said city police did, indeed, violate the Supreme Court ruling in Wilson vs. Arkansas, which holds that police must knock and announce when serving some warrants.

Jessamy said her investigators found that occupants of the house and neighbors didn't hear police knock or announce. Prosecutors also said there were conflicting statements from police about what was said and when.

The state's attorney, not surprisingly, caught some heat for her decision. The best thing she could have done, the naysayers claimed, was to let the grand jury decide whether Cauthorne should have been indicted.

But that wouldn't have been Pat Jessamy. Any state's attorney can wimp out and pass the buck to the grand jury. And whether you admire Jessamy or detest her, you have to admit this: wimping out isn't her style.

Wimping out was not the reason she didn't send the case to the grand jury, according to Margaret Burns, the spokeswoman for the state's attorney's office.

"It comes down to the fact that the state's attorney has a sworn duty to uphold this law," Burns, said, referring to the Supreme Court's Wilson vs. Arkansas ruling. "Assistant state's attorneys must go before a grand jury and swear there was a crime committed. Ms. Jessamy could not in good conscience have her assistant state's attorneys go in and swear a crime had been committed."

In other words, the law is clear. Wilson vs. Arkansas says police must knock and announce when serving warrants. They didn't in the Cauthorne case. Hence, in Jessamy's view, the raid and all evidence seized in it are by definition probably not admissible in court.

And because city prosecutors were being asked to prove that Cauthorne was a dangerous, big-time drug dealer out to harm police, it's good to rehash just what that evidence was. Six bags with "traces" of marijuana, a razor blade with "traces" of cocaine and a scale.

So Commissioner Clark - who ran the narcotics unit in New York and thus should have more than a passing interest in this Cauthorne affair - would do well to remember the name Sharlene Wilson when he becomes the top cop here.

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