City Council revises police plan for fines

Officials are concerned enforcement might vary among neighborhoods

Aims to alleviate heavy caseloads

Quality-of-life crimes would get civil citation

June 13, 2003|By Doug Donovan | Doug Donovan,SUN STAFF

The Baltimore Police Department's plan to impose civil fines for petty crimes underwent several revisions yesterday as politically sensitive City Council members and two high-ranking state officials raised concerns with the proposal.

The council held yesterday its second work session in as many weeks to discuss Commissioner Kevin P. Clark's proposal to issue civil citations - rather than make criminal arrests -for dozens of quality-of-life crimes such as loitering, public urination and curbside gambling.

Questions raised in letters from State's Attorney Patricia C. Jessamy and Kenneth C. Montague Jr., secretary of the state's Juvenile Services Department, have further fueled the debate over Clark's bill.

"One of the major questions I have involves disparate application," states Jessamy's letter, which was delivered to council members yesterday. "The last thing our city needs right now is the perception or indeed the reality of citations being issued in one area of the city and an arrest being made in another part of the city for the same violation."

Clark's proposal aims to alleviate heavy caseloads in criminal court and to keep officers on the street longer because making an arrest for such minor crimes, which has been the police practice, requires more time to process. He also wants to use civil remedies so that offenders can avoid criminal records, which could prevent them from finding jobs.

But the bill increasingly has become a touchstone for political leaders eager to champion civil liberties, especially in a campaign year.

"Obviously, we need to address all the major concerns and then get the number of votes needed to pass the bill," said Councilman Robert W. Curran, chairman of the committee studying the issue. "If this wasn't a campaign season it would be easier to pass."

Two council work sessions are anticipated before a vote is expected at the July meeting.

Curran, who solicited Jessamy's opinion, said her and Montague's concerns were addressed yesterday and would be discussed further.

Montague's letter requested that the bill be rejected or deferred because juveniles would be disproportionately targeted for loitering. The bill had never intended to target juveniles and will be amended to specifically prohibit citations to teens, police officials said.

Jessamy's letter raised more than a dozen concerns, many regarding how the city solicitor's office will track down violators who give officers false identification and who never appear to challenge the citation in civil District Court.

Police officials said identity fraud is elevated to a criminal offense that would be pursued through standard channels. Otherwise, if a violator does not show up, the case would proceed and a fine with additional charges would be sent to the alleged offender.

Curran's committee deleted one provision Jessamy had criticized, which had called for doubling fines for two-time offenders. The council's other actions yesterday regarding the proposal allayed most of Jessamy's other concerns.

"These are all questions raised and discussed at the work session and we worked through them all," said Kristen Mahoney, director of the mayor's office on criminal justice.

Council member Keiffer J. Mitchell Jr. expressed exasperation at the continuing tensions between Jessamy, Mayor Martin O'Malley and Clark.

The city solicitor's office is controlled by O'Malley, who has long been at odds with Jessamy, a political rival contemplating a run for mayor. Jessamy said through her spokeswoman that she was only offering her concerns at Curran's request.

"I would hope politics don't come into this legislation from two agencies who have historically been at odds," Mitchell said.

Mitchell proposed an amendment requiring officers to write on the ticket why they issued a citation for loitering. With further study and more amendments, he said he expects the bill to pass.

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