Ruling gives officials pause

Prosecutors motivated by overturned conviction

Interrogation policies questioned

Waiver would let police delay bringing charges

October 04, 2003|By Lisa Goldberg | Lisa Goldberg,SUN STAFF

Faced with a Court of Appeals ruling that overturned a Prince George's County murder conviction, prosecutors across Maryland are seeking ways to ensure the legality of confessions and extended interrogations.

The Maryland State's Attorneys' Association wants police departments to ask suspects to waive their right to quickly see a court commissioner - a move that would give investigators more time for questioning.

The hope is that the waiver, set out on a new form similar to one investigators use to advise suspects of constitutional rights, will forestall the problems that resulted in the reversal of the 3-year-old Washington-area case.

In the past, police departments figured they had up to a full day from the time of an arrest to process a suspect, fingerprint him and persuade him to confess before charging him formally with a crime, said Ara M. Crowe Jr., the executive director of the association.

"You could pretty much do what you wanted as long as you got to the court commissioner somewhere around the 24 hours," he said.

But the Prince George's case, along with two companion appellate rulings, made it "abundantly clear that you must advise the person of their right to a prompt presentment," he said.

Released in June, the rulings have left veteran prosecutors looking over their shoulders, waiting to see whether defendants will now try to overturn old convictions on similar grounds. It's also left them with a persistent question: Just how long is too long to wait to see a commissioner?

"I think a lot of us felt blindsided by the decision," said Prince George's Deputy State's Attorney Robert L. Dean, who helped craft the form. "What's as interesting as anything is what's left unsaid. I think there's a lot of uncertainty out there."

The right of prompt presentment - the chance to appear before a District Court commissioner, who explains rights and charges and sets bond - is set out in Maryland rules and designates 24 hours as the outer limit unless there are extenuating circumstances.

The consideration of other factors, approved by the legislature after an appellate court ruling in the late 1970s, has allowed prosecutors to protect confessions in cases where police have held suspects for more than a day.

This summer, though, the Court of Appeals weighed in, saying an investigator's desire to coax a confession is no excuse for delaying the formal charging process. The court suggested that investigators draw up a waiver form - in addition to one routinely used by police advising people of their constitutional right to remain silent and their right to an attorney - to avoid any problems.

"I think most police officers and those of us in law enforcement concluded that when you advise a person of his or her [constitutional] rights, implicit therein was an agreement to take the time to talk to you," said Mickey Norman, chief of the Baltimore County state's attorney's violent crimes division. "I don't think anyone ever thought there needed to be an absolutely explicit waiver."

Lawyers and experts said the appeals decision is a clarification of the old rule, and tells judges how strong a factor any delay should be in deciding whether to suppress a statement.

"It was a change in the analysis for determining the voluntariness of a confession," said Kathryn Grill Graeff, the chief of the attorney general's criminal appeals division.

In the June ruling, the court overturned the 2001 murder conviction of Reccardo Williams II and sent the case back to Prince George's County for retrial. Williams was held for nearly two days before he saw a commissioner but confessed to a fatal shooting within the first 24 hours of his arrest in July 2000. The appeals court said Williams should have been taken before a commissioner after confessing to two armed robberies - but before being questioned about the murder.

"The trial court gave insufficient weight to the continued and unlawful detention of petitioner following his statements regarding the two robberies," Judge Alan M. Wilner wrote. "When the delay is not only violative of the Rule but deliberate and designed for the sole purpose of soliciting a confession, it must be given very heavy weight."

Within days, Prince George's prosecutors had come up with an interim form for the county Police Department to use. By the end of July, the statewide prosecutors group, using what Crowe called a "road map" provided within the appeals decision, had drawn up a form that could be used across Maryland.

Since then, area police departments say they are either revising forms they had on file or reviewing the one suggested by the prosecutors group. In Anne Arundel County, police say they had protections in place before the ruling; department regulations require that officers who keep a suspect for more than six hours document the reason for the delay.

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