Criminal citation don'ts

July 18, 2004

TO CITY prosecutors, George Gunther is your basic "frequent flier." The 48-year-old Baltimore man has been cited once, twice, seven times, for loitering or trespassing in the past four months. The cases usually are dismissed, and he winds up back on the street and in trouble again. Police officers are either improperly writing the citations or they haven't given prosecutors enough to pursue the charges. Either way, the nuisance remains. The example of Mr. Gunther offers a compelling reason why Police Commissioner Kevin P. Clark should rethink his strategy of using criminal citations to stem "quality of life" crimes.

It's not working. Not when 63.5 percent of criminal citations reviewed by The Sun were dismissed for legal insufficiency, as found by reporter Ryan Davis. Of 14,914 citations issued over a recent nine-month period, Baltimore prosecutors tossed out 9,472 because they didn't have what it takes to win a conviction, according to data provided by the state's attorney's office. At the very least, Commissioner Clark's officers don't know the how-to's of writing a criminal citation: They use outdated ordinances and lack probable cause or evidence of a crime. At the worst, police are writing citations they shouldn't be writing.

The Police Department can fix this problem, if it is serious about getting results. And that appears to be a big if. City prosecutors say they have pointed out problems with the citations for more than a year without any improvement. How hard can it be to train a police officer to write a citation? A citation properly written -- even under the city's strict loitering ordinance -- can be prosecuted.

Police should enforce the nuisance laws. These crimes may seem petty, but they affect how we live, where we live and how we feel about where we live. Prostitutes under street lamps. The stench of urine in alleys. Knots of men parked on stoops. Shattered liquor bottles littering sidewalks.

Prosecutors and police, working in tandem on petty crimes, can make a difference in a community's quality of life. They showed that when they targeted certain quality-of-life crimes in Pigtown and Washington Village during a federally funded pilot project that ended in May. City prosecutor Jennifer Etheridge recruited community leaders and businesses in the effort and met regularly with police to share concerns. She required defendants to give something back to the community in service, not fines. She referred some prostitutes, drug addicts and out-of-work defendants to programs that would help them.

The approach paid off -- in fewer defendants showing up in court for the same crimes and a 21 percent drop in violent crime in the targeted neighborhoods during the 18-month span of the program.

That's how criminal citations can and should be used by law enforcement -- with the proper training and supervision in a coordinated approach aimed at improving the neighborhoods the citizens of Baltimore call home.

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