City police ask for power to issue civil fines

Citations can help reduce serious crimes, Clark says

June 01, 2003|By Del Quentin Wilber | Del Quentin Wilber,SUN STAFF

Baltimore Police Commissioner Kevin P. Clark is asking City Council members to allow his officers to hit both drug dealers and those committing petty crimes where it stings - in their wallets.

Clark and Mayor Martin O'Malley are pushing legislation before the City Council that would give police officers the ability to issue civil citations for petty offenses.

The tickets would carry no criminal penalty, but relatively stiff fines. The council's judiciary committee will hold its first hearing on the legislation Thursday.

"It's going to affect their behavior," Clark said of those who commit nuisance crimes and sell drugs on city streets. "It's going to impact them. ... Civil citations are just another very good tool."

Clark believes that by constantly ticketing drug dealers and others who hang out on the streets, those potential trouble-makers would be forced indoors. That, in turn, would reduce violence, police predict; the majority of the city's homicides and shootings occur outside.

If the legislation passes, as expected, police officers would be able to issue civil citations for a broad range of nuisance crimes, including loitering, drinking or urinating in public and littering.

The fines range from about $25 to several hundred dollars. For example, loitering carries fines ranging from $50 in most public places to $200 in drug-free zones.

Police say the citations would work somewhat like traffic tickets - offenders can mail fines to City Hall or contest the allegation in state civil District Court.

The tactic of issuing civil citations, officials say, offers several advantages. The tickets would alleviate heavy caseloads in criminal court and not give criminal records to those committing minor offenses. It would also keep officers, who often lose several hours of patrol time processing arrests, on the street longer.

City solicitors, who work directly for O'Malley, would try the cases, not prosecutors.

Solicitors would only have to prove their cases by a preponderance of the evidence, a much lower threshold than the familiar standard of a reasonable doubt in criminal cases.

Several council members said they would likely support the measure.

"I'm inclined to give Commissioner Clark any tool he thinks he needs," said Councilman Robert W. Curran, chairman of the Judiciary and Legislative Investigations committee that will hold Thursday's hearing. "If you get hit in the pocketbook, you remember that. That's where you hurt people most."

Said City Council President Sheila Dixon: "It's just another way to try to alleviate a cumbersome process we have to go through for things that are nuisance crimes."

Defendants who ignore the citations would soon learn they made a mistake, Clark said.

State judges can issue bench warrants for those who fail to appear, and city lawyers can seek judgments against those people.

Eventually, Clark is hoping to push state legislation that would prevent those who do not pay their fines from getting their car registrations and driver's licenses renewed.

"There are a million ways to go after [someone] civilly," he said.

Clark, who also launched an organized-crime division to target drug dealers, is bringing the citation strategy from New York, where he was a precinct commander.

Howard Safir, a former New York police commissioner and author of a forthcoming book about policing and homeland security, says citations played a crucial role in that city's historic crime drop during the late 1990s.

"Drug dealing is a business," Safir said. "If you make the business environment tough, they are going to go someplace else."

While civil citations would be new to Baltimore, they have been used for years in other jurisdictions, including Baltimore and Howard counties.

City police have long targeted minor offenses with criminal citations, but with varying degrees of success. Former Police Commissioner Thomas C. Frazier pushed officers to write citations in the mid-1990s. But that effort stalled in much of the city.

Some current commanders and officers, speaking on condition of anonymity, question whether citations would work in Baltimore because, they contend, many people on the streets do not carry identification and already ignore criminal citations. Police need identification from a person to write a citation; otherwise, officers are required to make an arrest and have the person taken into custody to be fingerprinted.

Clark said that his initiative would give offenders a chance to get family members and their friends to find needed identification to avoid arrest. And that, in itself, might yield an additional benefit, other police officials say: Police would learn who a suspect's friends and family members are, which could aid in future investigations.

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