When to fold 'em

November 16, 2005

In poker parlance, the Baltimore prosecutor "mucked" her hand. Reviewing criminal citations against 80 card players nabbed at an illegal poker tournament, Assistant State's Attorney Patricia Deros dismissed the cases because they were improperly charged, unplayable. Police insisted their cases were right on the money and the law.

But this isn't simply a difference of opinion. It's yet another example of police charging people for minor crimes that prosecutors throw out.

In a city with an overwhelming drug problem and steep murder rate, police and prosecutors should be operating from the same playbook - implementing a coordinated law enforcement strategy that produces results, not just hundreds of arrests. This isn't about the reason for busting up a card game; street gambling is still illegal here, and tournament organizers may yet be charged. It's about how best to use public resources.

Baltimore prosecutors routinely decline to pursue about a third of arrests made by police for such minor crimes as loitering, public drinking and disorderly conduct. And that has increased from just 16 percent in 2000. Prosecutors have repeatedly held training sessions in lawful arrest procedures to ensure that police are presenting the best cases for prosecution. But on-site arrests that aren't prosecuted remain a nagging constant.

The criminal justice system functions because of police, prosecutors and the courts. The first two are integral to crime-fighting and should be working hand in hand, not at cross-purposes. Time is money, and arresting poker players may seem like a waste of time. But if Commissioner Leonard D. Hamm chooses to deploy his vice squad in that way, he should expect his officers to deliver cases that can be prosecuted.

He and State's Attorney Patricia C. Jessamy must find common ground on pursuing quality-of-life crimes. There are hundreds of people arrested for minor crimes each year whose cases are dropped. If police refined their approach to these nuisance crimes, it would ease criminal court loads, spare some citizens a criminal record and free up officers to devote more time to the violence pervading troubled city neighborhoods.

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