City judge to enforce timely jail hearings

Public safety officials failing to comply could be held in contempt, he rules

Suspects must have one within day or go free

April 26, 2005|By Ryan Davis | Ryan Davis,SUN STAFF

Suspects who do not receive a court hearing within 24 hours of their arrest must be released from Baltimore's state-run booking center, a Circuit Court judge ordered yesterday while warning that public safety officials who don't comply could be held in contempt.

Public defenders who sought the temporary order said it could pave the way for dozens of unlawfully detained suspects to be released each day from the downtown facility.

"Our clients ... are being harmed," assistant public defender Natalie Finegar argued at the court hearing yesterday. "It's the only way to protect their individual liberties."

Judge John M. Glynn's ruling came after Baltimore police, prosecutors, judges and jail officials failed to resolve the contentious issue during months of sometimes acrimonious debate. All sides have blamed the others for letting people arrested on minor charges linger behind bars for hours and days without seeing a court commissioner or even being formally charged.

Despite a state law requiring that suspects be freed or see a court commissioner within 24 hours of arrest, many suspects have been detained at the crowded Central Booking for much longer, some for as long as four days. Public defenders said the number of unlawful detentions has increased over the past year, but Central Booking has been gridlocked since it opened a decade ago.

Glynn called his orders a stop-gap solution. "It's going to have to be fixed by the political forces," he said during the hearing.

People arrested in the city are taken to the facility, the keystone of the city's criminal justice system. It's where prosecutors decide whether to press charges, suspects get defense attorneys and judges and court commissioners decide whom to release. It routinely holds nearly 1,200 suspects though it was built for 895.

Suspects arrested on serious charges could be delayed at Central Booking, but public defenders have said that it is typically those accused of minor crimes who get caught in the gridlock.

In issuing the order, Glynn said public safety officials may file with the courts for an exception, which would allow them to detain a suspect for more than 24 hours. He said that precaution would help ensure that no one who poses a threat to public safety is unknowingly released.

Even with the precaution, Kristen Mahoney, chief of technical services for the city Police Department, and Commissioner William J. Smith of the state Division of Pretrial Detention and Services both expressed concerns about suspects potentially being prematurely released.

"I would rather have the opportunity to make sure everybody is clear before we let them go," Smith said in an interview after the hearing. "[But] we will comply with the judge's order."

Glynn's order will be in effect until May 6, when he is scheduled to preside over another hearing in the class action case of Suspects v. Warden Susan M. Murphy of Central Booking.

Responding to separate motions yesterday, Glynn ordered 14 unlawfully detained suspects to be set free, public defenders said. He had granted releases to five suspects on Thursday and seven more on Friday.

But public defenders said the number of releases had been limited each day by the amount of paperwork they could file. At one point yesterday, they said, 80 people were being held in excess of 24 hours. The new order makes the releases automatic. The suspects can be re-arrested by police.

After the hearing, Finegar said she hopes the order pushes public safety officials and other law enforcement agencies to immediately reform the facility, as well as the process it houses.

"It's already forcing the parties to sit down and discuss this with renewed vigor," Finegar said.

Corrections and police officials agreed that there's a new sense of urgency. "I feel confident we will come up with a solution," Smith said.

Mahoney said: "I applaud the judicial intervention."

During a meeting yesterday of some members of the city's Criminal Justice Coordinating Council, prosecutors, police and court officials drew up some suggestions to present at a meeting tomorrow with state corrections Secretary Mary Ann Saar.

"Everybody's got to look at the way they're doing business, including me," said Assistant State's Attorney Page Croyder, who works inside Central Booking.

District Judge Charlotte M. Cooksey, who oversaw yesterday's meeting, has said that bickering has hindered progress.

Corrections officials say the facility wasn't built to handle the vast number of people being arrested by the city police. Prosecutors have made numerous complaints about the practices of both police and corrections officials. Police say the inefficient assembly-line process often leaves them waiting with newly arrested suspects for hours outside Central Booking.

In successfully arguing yesterday for the order, Finegar said she thought it would succeed because she thinks it will force members of the criminal justice system to admit daily that they can't successfully do their jobs.

Glynn responded that making such admissions, "hasn't bothered them up until now."

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