Unreturned warrants indicate a bigger issue

April 15, 2006|By GREGORY KANE

Eight days before attorney Bradley L. MacFee Sr. sent a letter to Baltimore police Commissioner Leonard D. Hamm, Keith E. Mathews, the administrative judge of the Baltimore District Court, sent Hamm one.

Both letters addressed issues of police misconduct. MacFee's was about 29 internal affairs complaints lodged against Officer Daniel Hersl and 17 lodged against Officer Frank Nellis. Prosecutors dropped a case against three alleged drug dealers after Baltimore Circuit Judge John N. Prevas ruled that the personnel records of Hersl and Nellis were fair game for defense attorneys to explore. (Each officer had one fact-substantiated internal affairs complaint.)

MacFee asked Hamm if he would agree to a performance audit of all department personnel. Karen Hornig, the chief legal counsel for the Baltimore Police Department, replied. Hornig's letter made a snide reference to MacFee "representing members of violent drug organizations."

Mathews' letter focused on the not-so-minor-matter of the Fourth Amendment, the law of the land that the Baltimore Police Department has never taken a liking to. In all fairness, that started long before Mayor Martin O'Malley was even born and when Hamm was just a boy. Anybody remember the Veney raids?

"At the last two bench meetings of the judges of the District Court for Baltimore City," Mathews began, "several of the judges remarked that they had noticed a large and ever increasing number of search warrants which had been signed by them at the request of Baltimore City police officers but which had not been returned to the judges after service or even when the warrants went unserved. Maryland Rule 4-601(d) requires that a served warrant be returned no later than 10 days after the warrant is served. A signed warrant is to be served within 15 days of signing. Officers are also to return any unserved warrants as well to the judges who signed them."

Mathews wrote that one judge had fewer than half of the warrants he signed returned. Other judges had return rates "in the 50-60% range," according to Mathews. A District Court judge who acted in an after-hours emergency capacity told cops to return the warrant no later than the second day after the warrant was signed.

"Incredibly," Mathews wrote, "50% of the warrants signed by this judge `after-hours' have still not been returned even though it is two months after the second morning following the signing of the warrant. I have no idea of the reasons for the lack of returns. Are signed warrants not being served and thus not returned because officers believe they need not be? If not served, why not? Are officers simply forgetting to return warrants because of the crush of other police business?"

How about this reason, which Mathews probably didn't bring up only because he's more polite than I am:

Arrogance.

I've said it at least twice before. It merits saying again: Baltimore's police department has a cup that overfloweth with arrogance. Cops don't sign and return warrants because they feel they're not accountable to anyone but the commissioner and the department's unofficial micro-manager, O'Malley.

Mathews hinted that at the very least, the department is guilty of disrespect.

"This failure to return signed search and seizure warrants," Mathews wrote, "by officers is indicative of not only a lack of respect for the Court, but a sloppy and unprofessional approach to police business, not to mention jeopardizing the prosecution of homicide, drug distribution, and other serious criminal charges. As for the warrants signed after hours, the failure to make returns is perceived as not only a lack of respect for the Court, but also a lack of credibility on the part of the officers."

This department has heard such criticism before, from two Baltimore Circuit Court judges who tossed out gun cases after saying they didn't trust the word of the police officers involved. They heard it from a third Circuit Court judge who requested a grand jury inquiry into why many Baltimoreans don't trust police.

They've heard it from those who've criticized the department's failure to fill out the paperwork required, by law, for stop-and-frisk incidents. They've heard it from opponents of their "arrest-everybody-for-petty-offenses" strategy. They heard it from Nadean Paige, the mother of then 19-year-old Evan Howard, who was arrested on a loitering charge he says he never committed.

I have a copy of Howard's statement of charges from the District Court for the night he was arrested. The arresting officer was Jemini Jones. Isn't he the Southwest District officer now accused of raping a suspect? Well, as I live and breathe.

It's no surprise that at least one Circuit Court judge is wondering why many Baltimoreans don't trust cops. When will our mayor and police commissioner - or, more appropriately, police commissioner number one and police commissioner number two - start wondering?

greg.kane@baltsun.com

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