Getting to truth on existence of police `liars list'

October 06, 2004|By GREGORY KANE

SO DOES IT exist, or doesn't it?

The "it" in question would be the "liars list," reputed to be used by some state's attorneys offices to weed out police officers who have perjured themselves from the ones whose testimony will be reliable in court.

Possibly the stuff of urban legend, the liars list supposedly has the names of all cops in a particular jurisdiction with credibility problems. I first got wind of it in a letter from a guy who was, at the time at least, a guest at one of our penal institutions. The liars list is topical this week because two Southern District detectives, Clarence Grear and Kevin E. Jones, face a city Police Department inquiry about whether one or both allegedly falsified information in a warrant affidavit.

More than 20 cases involving the detectives have been dropped. Scores more might be dropped. The chain of events that led to this sorry state of affairs started during the summer, when Grear and Jones were investigating 22-year-old Antoine Collins of South Baltimore on drug and weapons violations.

On July 19, the detectives had Collins' car towed to the Southern District. They allegedly searched the car between 6:30 p.m. and 7:10 p.m. - about three hours before a judge signed a warrant permitting the search.

It remains to be determined if Grear or Jones - or both - belong on a liars list. (For the record, I'm hoping all that happened is a major mistake about when the car was actually searched and that it was way after 10 p.m.) But does one really exist?

"I've heard of the list," said Margaret Mead, Collins' lawyer. "But as far as a physical list that I've seen? No. But I understand it does exist."

Mead was the one who caught the not-so-minor error of the car's arrival at the Southern District three hours before the search warrant was signed. You'd think cops would know that lawyers - who have gone through four years of college, three years of law school and have passed the bar exam - would pick up on things like that.

"The problem with this whole thing," Mead said, "is that officers deal with so many things and so much." But this case, she added, is "blatant."

"I've not heard of a `liars list' for the state's attorney's office," said David Solomon, another Baltimore lawyer. But, Solomon added, defense attorneys have their own list of cops with credibility problems.

"It's very conceivable the state's attorney's office might have such a list," Solomon said, "but they don't share it with defense attorneys."

Margaret Burns, a spokeswoman for the state's attorney's office, said that such information is shared more often than defense attorneys suspect.

"We have a list internally that's maintained by a division chief regarding police misconduct," Burns said. "If a police officer is under investigation for perjury and is a potential witness, we give that information to defense attorneys. It's part of the rules of discovery."

Burns' comments would seem to confirm the existence of a "quasi-liars list" - even if that's not its official name. A. Dwight Pettit, Baltimore's best defense attorney - and the best one in the country, for my money - wasn't surprised.

"I'm sure [prosecutors] do have a list of [which police] are going to be the more difficult ones from their past history," Pettit said. "If I were a prosecutor, I would."

That list of police officers with, to put it kindly, credibility problems, is one that Mead thinks is a short one.

"Most officers are good," Mead said. "They're hardworking, follow the Fourth Amendment [protecting people from unreasonable searches and seizures] and work with the utmost of integrity."

I told Mead of some e-mails I received from some police officers reacting to a previous column I'd done on police perjury. They admitted, off the record, of course, that either they or other officers they knew had committed perjury, to combat criminals who knew how to work the system.

"I think that is horrible," Mead said of such thinking. "I think that is despicable. Police take an oath. If they do [their jobs] right, they'll get the suspect. [Criminals] aren't rocket scientists. Cops who feel they need to lie aren't doing their jobs."

But are the judges who sign those warrants doing theirs? There are times when I think if a detective slipped the words "look for the sun rising at midnight tonight in the west" into an affidavit, some judges would be up at 11:59 p.m. checking.

Solomon said some judges won't even concede the possibility that some police officers might not be honest. Bring the subject up and, Solomon said, "Most of the judges around here will look at you like you've committed blasphemy."

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