U.S. judge rebukes city police after rejecting evidence

Davis finds officers acted illegally, says, `We deserve better'

March 10, 2003|By Gail Gibson | Gail Gibson,SUN STAFF

Twice in recent weeks, a federal judge has delivered stinging rebukes to the Baltimore Police Department - saying at one point, "It's sad. We deserve better" - as he threw out evidence in two cases, including a major city heroin seizure, after finding that police had acted illegally.

In blunt remarks from the bench, U.S. District Judge Andre M. Davis voiced a growing impatience with what he portrayed as sloppy work by city officers more intent on fighting with the Baltimore state's attorney and making splashy arrests than diligently building cases that will stick, court transcripts show.

Davis ruled in one case that about $200,000 worth of heroin was illegally seized by city narcotics detectives who prepared a search warrant affidavit that contained "knowing lies." In an unrelated gun case, Davis said city officers failed to show a basic understanding of constitutional rights and added: "I think the community is entitled to a higher level of performance, to a higher level of professionalism."

"They're fumbling and bumbling, and they don't understand the law," Davis said. "They don't understand the Constitution. They don't understand the limits that the law places upon them."

Davis' wide-ranging remarks provided a rare critique of Baltimore's police force from the vantage of the city's federal bench. His comments also offered forceful support to concerns and criticisms that others - most vocally, top officials in the city state's attorney's office - have expressed about the work of Baltimore police.

Officials in the U.S. attorney's office responded to Davis' ruling in the drug case against defendant Mason A. Weaver by taking the unusual step of asking the judge to soften his sharp attack. Prosecutors did not appeal Davis' decision to suppress the evidence, but they asked the judge to amend his characterization of the sworn police affidavit as containing "knowing lies."

Federal prosecutors asked the judge to find instead that the affidavit contained "recklessly made material misstatements and inaccuracies."

Davis has yet to rule on the prosecution's request. In court papers filed last week, Weaver's defense lawyer called the government's motion an attempt to "rewrite history" in order to keep the detective who prepared the search warrant affidavit and testified about it in court "viable as a police officer."

"It is shocking that the government would not be as offended or even more offended than this court that a police officer, who the government relies on to provide its case, lied under oath," defense lawyer Kenneth W. Ravenell said in court filings.

A spokeswoman for the U.S. attorney's office declined to comment on the case. The motion asking Davis to amend the language in his ruling was signed by the prosecutor who handled the case in court and by First Assistant U.S. Attorney Gregory Welsh, the office's second-in-command.

"That goes to our overall investigative decisions, and those are internal decisions that we really can't discuss," said Vickie E. LeDuc, a spokeswoman for U.S. Attorney Thomas M. DiBiagio.

Ravenell, who represented Weaver and the defendant in the other case that Davis criticized, also declined to comment.

Called a moderate

A city police spokeswoman said Friday that Commissioner Kevin P. Clark had been made aware of the concerns Davis raised in court, after an inquiry by The Sun, and was reviewing the matter.

"At this time, I will decline to comment until the proper department officials have had an opportunity to review the circumstances related to this event," spokeswoman Ragina C. Averella said.

Nominated to the federal bench by President Bill Clinton in 1995, Davis is considered a moderate; his judicial experience reaches back 15 years and includes terms in Baltimore's district and circuit courts.

In one of his more prominent decisions as a federal judge, Davis struck down three years ago a Baltimore law requiring that 20 percent of the city's public works contracts go to minority companies.

Awakened mother

In the weapons case against Robert A. Paige, 30, federal prosecutors dismissed the indictment charging Paige with illegally possessing a handgun as a convicted felon after Davis granted a defense motion to suppress evidence and statements collected by Baltimore police.

During a hearing in the case Jan. 10, Davis noted that after encountering Paige as part of a broader drug investigation, city police went to his mother's home in the 1800 block of Baker St. at 4 a.m. and awakened her for permission to search for drugs and weapons in the house.

The judge ruled the search was illegal and called it the kind of behavior that undermines public trust in law enforcement.

"These officers seem not to understand the connection between what I'm willing to grant are good-faith, honest efforts to fight crime and the methods they use with the citizenry," Davis said.

Harsher assessment

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