Two Baltimore judges in separate rulings in the past two weeks have said they don't believe the police officers who investigated gun cases, prompting prosecutors to dismiss charges that could have put two convicted felons behind bars.
As police aggressively try to take guns off city streets - they have collected more than 1,400 this year - some cases aren't surviving in court because of what judges say are improper police searches, the inability to prove who was in possession of the recovered guns, and doubts about whether officers used legal methods to seize the weapons.
Prosecutors and judges said that Baltimore police generally do a good job building weapons cases, and that the most common mistakes can be explained by honest disagreements about how to interpret the complexities of laws protecting citizens from improper searches and seizures.
More disturbing, prosecutors said, are the times when a judge doubts the credibility of the investigating officer.
"There is a strong skepticism in the air about the police, transmitted through the jurors based on what they see in their communities," Circuit Judge John M. Glynn, who oversees the criminal docket, said in an interview. "Judges are citizens of those communities, too."
A review of three months of data compiled by the city State's Attorney's Office shows that among the 210 Circuit Court cases and 99 District Court cases involving weapons, about 40 were hampered by issues such as police officers' being unable to testify because they were under investigation or had been suspended, legal questions about who possessed a recovered weapon, and judges dismissing key evidence.
In those cases, circuit judges granted motions to suppress evidence in felony weapons cases a half-dozen times, leading to the case being dismissed or findings of not guilty. Eight more times, prosecutors dropped charges because it was unclear whose gun was recovered. Another two dozen handgun cases in District Court were affected by similar issues.
During that same period, April through June, 125 Circuit and District Court weapons and shooting cases ended in either a guilty plea or a conviction.
Police officials said they see the rulings in which judges question the credibility of officers as isolated. James H. Green, the department's director of special projects, said prosecutors have faith in the officers' work because cases are being indicted and presented to the court. But, he added, "it's always difficult" when a judge has doubts.
"Clearly, there's a concern if anyone on the bench is saying they don't believe an officer," Green said. "The department is receptive to hearing directly from the bench."
Matt Jablow, the Police Department's chief spokesman, said officers are doing a good job.
"Hundreds of gun cases are prosecuted each year based on the testimony of our police officers," Jablow said. "The officers do their job well - getting violent criminals off the streets. And they tell the truth. We stand behind our officers."
But two recent rulings from judges caused two convicted felons who admitted carrying a loaded weapon to avoid a mandatory prison term of five years without the possibility of parole.
Circuit Judge Wanda K. Heard reluctantly ruled Wednesday that a .357 Magnum revolver found on a man who had been convicted of prior weapons violations could not be used as evidence because she thought the officer had lied about what prompted him to search the man.
"I don't believe it happened the way the officer said," Heard said in court.
Kivi Kennedy admitted that he did have the gun in his waistband - and 12 rounds of extra ammunition in his pockets - when uniformed officers came into a West Baltimore convenience store to shoo away loiterers. Kennedy said he tried to leave the store when one officer grabbed him by the arm and searched him.
Shockley said Kennedy shoved him against a wall, and that's why he was arrested and searched.
The judge said "personal experience and common sense" led her to believe the convicted felon's version over the officer's.
Heard suppressed the gun evidence, and the prosecutor dropped three handgun charges and a second-degree assault charge. Addressing the defendant, Heard said, "I don't want you to think you got away with something. ... I have a constitutional duty to protect your right to say, `I don't want to talk to you.'"
A week earlier, Circuit Judge Thomas E. Noel made a similar decision because he said another officer's story about how he pulled a loaded weapon off a convicted felon did not make sense.
Brian Tiller said he and his girlfriend had been parked at Pimlico Road and Woodland Avenue when an unmarked police car swooped in to block him. Plainclothes officers approached with weapons drawn, he said. Tiller was carrying a fully loaded .22-caliber gun in his pocket, but Tiller's lawyer said they had no right to search him.