Judge decries police lapses

Officers consistently fail to return search warrants, letter says

April 10, 2006|By JULIE BYKOWICZ | JULIE BYKOWICZ,SUN REPORTER

Baltimore police officers have riled some city judges by consistently failing to submit lists of property seized during searches.

Keith E. Mathews, administrative judge of the Baltimore District Court, wrote a letter last month to police Commissioner Leonard D. Hamm asking him to fix the problem - and threatening to hold officers in contempt of court if he doesn't.

"This failure to return signed search and seizure warrants by officers is indicative of not only a lack of respect for the court," Mathews wrote, "but a sloppy and unprofessional approach to police business."

Procedure calls for judges to receive warrant returns to ensure that the searches were carried out as expected and that officers have not overstepped their boundaries.

Police officials said that after receiving Mathews' letter, they quickly developed new approaches, such as placing a warrant log book at each station, in an effort to ensure that proper warrant procedure is being followed.

To enter and search a person's home without consent, an officer needs a judge to sign a warrant. Because the process involves an invasion of privacy, it is governed by strict rules, including the stipulation that, within 10 days of a warrant being served, the officer must return it to the signing judge with an itemization of property seized.

Judges are unsure how many search warrants are signed each day, but it could be a dozen or more, Mathews said.

Two months in the past year, including in February, none of the warrants signed by a District Court judge had been returned to him, according to Mathews' letter. Another judge observed that in the final three months of last year, just 10 of the 24 warrants he had signed were returned to him - a number that Mathews called "woefully low" in his letter.

A District Court judge for 22 years, Mathews said problems with warrant procedure are nothing new, but only recently has the return rate dipped so low.

"Police officers should be following the rules to a T," Mathews said in an interview Friday, "especially with something as serious as search warrants."

The judge said he had confidence the Police Department would correct itself.

"The Police Department is on top of this," James H. Green, the department's director of special projects, said Friday. "We recognize the seriousness of this issue and took immediate steps to address it."

Green called Mathews and other judges after reading the letter to assure them the department would be responsive to their concerns.

Mathews said the prosecution of criminal cases could be jeopardized because evidence seized by police must be carefully documented and tracked, beginning with the list of items taken during the execution of a search and seizure warrant.

Not following warrant-return procedure does not automatically render a search legally invalid, but if a defense attorney questions the authenticity of a warrant during trial, problems could arise if the return was not properly submitted.

Officers' failure to return warrants is so widespread, Mathews said, that it is occurring even in major criminal investigations. Even in one "high-profile" case, which Mathews would not name because it is still in court, warrant-return procedure was not followed, the judge said.

"How police would execute a warrant in that case and not make a proper return is just unbelievable," Mathews said.

During business hours, District Court judges typically sign search warrants. After hours and on weekends and holidays, District and Circuit Court judges rotate the responsibility.

Even when judges are awakened in the middle of the night to sign a search warrant, officers often still fail to submit the return and itemization, Mathews said.

He said that in particular is causing a rift between judges and the police.

Circuit Judge John M. Glynn said that if it's important enough to knock on a judge's door late at night, "then it should be important enough to serve and return the warrant."

It is unclear why officers are not returning warrants, and no formal study has been conducted or is in the works.

Green said whatever the reason is "it is imperative that we comply with the procedure and the laws in this area."

Mathews said that he thinks that officers' noncompliance was a combination of three factors: "They're stretched thin. They don't know any better. And they don't feel like it."

Although Mathews said he had spoken with Green about warrants and believed the department would correct the problems on its own, in his letter to Hamm he threatened to hold officers in contempt of court - a charge that could include fines or jail time.

julie.bykowicz@baltsun.com

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