Rejected citations shown to increase

Police and prosecutors argue over effect of `quality of life' crackdown

September 16, 2004|By Ryan Davis | Ryan Davis,SUN STAFF

Prosecutors said yesterday that the police crackdown on so-called quality of life offenses apparently is failing because an overwhelming majority of criminal citations do not pass legal muster.

Police countered that the citations are still having the intended effect of clearing the streets, even if prosecutors decline to prosecute the charges.

The exchange of opposing viewpoints followed the city state's attorney's office release of figures showing that the number of citations being ripped up by prosecutors continues to grow.

In May and June, the most recent months for which statistics were released, prosecutors tossed out more than three-quarters of the citations because police either wrote them improperly or provided insufficient evidence, said City State's Attorney Patricia C. Jessamy.

"Why continue to do something if it's not having the intended result?" Jessamy asked.

At issue is a major component of Police Commissioner Kevin P. Clark's crime-fighting plan. With his urging, the issuance of citations has jumped more than 300 percent in an effort to curb offenses such as loitering, open alcohol-container violations and public urination.

The benefit, Clark says, is that police can issue the citation and continue patrolling the streets without making time-consuming arrests. Even if the citations are dismissed, he says, the offenders are forced to appear in court because they don't know of the dismissal in advance.

That requirement to show up in court serves as a deterrent, he says. Police issued more than 20,000 such citations last year and will write about as many this year.

"We believe it's having the intended results despite the fact that so many citations are being dismissed," police spokesman Matt Jablow said. "We're getting people off the streets."

Clark has said that if police can push potential troublemakers off corners, the tactic will reduce the violent crime that typically occurs on the city's streets. Although shootings and homicides have increased this year -205 homicides so far, compared with 193 at this point last year - police are emphasizing a 9 percent overall reduction in violent crime and a decrease in 911 calls.

Some, including members of the American Civil Liberties Union, have expressed concern that police are issuing citations they know can't hold up in court.

Those who receive citations arrive at court and are then told by prosecutors whether their cases will proceed.

In the small percentage of cases that are prosecuted, defendants can plead guilty and pay a $25 fine or perform community service.

They can also request a jury trial. Arrest warrants are issued for defendants who don't appear.

Rejection rate rises

The number of citations being thrown out by prosecutors has been a concern between Jessamy's office and Clark's department. Before Clark's arrival, about 40 percent were tossed out by prosecutors. As Clark pushed his police to issue more citations last year, the number of cases being rejected by prosecutors climbed, initially to about 60 percent. In March of this year, 69 percent of citation cases were tossed out by prosecutors. In April, the rate hit 80 percent. May yielded a 78 percent dismissal rate, and June showed 76 percent, according to prosecutors.

In July, police officials said they were implementing training procedures that would reduce dismissal rates. Kristen Mahoney, the director of the Police Department's grants and government relations section, said the results of that training are not reflected in the figures issued yesterday because of the time lag in reporting statistics.

`Effective tool'

Police were recently issued cards, designed by prosecutors and police officials, that list the proper laws to be noted on citations and provide several reminders about writing a proper citation. One of the common mistakes, prosecutors say, is that police cite old laws instead of current ones. Officers were also required to watch a video about citation training, Jablow said. And a new easier-to-write citation is being considered.

Police officials said the citations are an "effective tool" that will become more valuable as police learn to write them properly.

"We're not going to give up on it," Mahoney said. "Community members expect us to be in their community enforcing the law."

Jessamy said she should soon meet with Clark, evaluate the efficacy of the training changes and determine the future of citations. She has raised concerns that weeding through citations and dismissing most cases may not be an effective use of her prosecutors.

"We hope they do work together and come up with a solution and continue issuing those citations," said Susan Hughes, a staff attorney at the nonprofit Community Law Center, which assists resident groups. "It does make a difference."

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