`Stealing' from dealers is a murky legal area

June 21, 2006|By GREGORY KANE

Can you really steal from a drug dealer?"

I put the question to my son, Ray, as I drove him home Sunday. We were returning from what has become our annual ritual of attending the African-American Heritage Festival.

We walked around Camden Yards, took in the sights and looked to buy some books and T-shirts.

There were slim pickings as far as book offerings went this year, but Ray, with his unabating love for law enforcement folks, found a T-shirt to his liking.

"Watch Out for the Alphabet Boys," the front of the T-shirt read. The "alphabet boys" in question are the FBI, CIA, DEA (Drug Enforcement Administration) and ATF (Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives). Somehow, I get the feeling the parties responsible for that T-shirt aren't protesting the power of the federal government.

Ray's Friend of Law Enforcement Award will be arriving at about the same time Mount Everest is worn down to the size of a pebble. That's why I was stunned when he expressed sympathy for William A. King, the ex-detective with the Baltimore Police Department who got hit with a 315-year bit in federal prison last week.

"That's way too much time," Ray said, seconding the motion of U.S. District Judge J. Frederick Motz, who presided at King's trial and handed down the sentence. A federal jury found King and his partner, Antonio Murray, guilty of a string of crimes, among them taking drugs and money from drug dealers and having their informants sell the drugs, which King and Murray then pocketed.

That's when I asked my question. When King took the stand in his defense, there were times when he was confrontational, if not downright hostile, to prosecutors who fired questions at him. King especially bristled when prosecutors accused him of stealing money and drugs from drug dealers.

He never "robbed" anyone, King insisted. He and Murray had taken drugs and money from street-level drug dealers, which they used to pay their informants in hopes they would steer them to those running a drug organization in the area of Edmondson Avenue, Lauretta Avenue and Franklin Street in West Baltimore.

Federal prosecutors didn't buy that explanation. Neither, apparently, did the jury. City police have been persistent in their denials that any officers or detectives were trained to take drugs and money from drug dealers and use those things to pay confidential informants.

But that doesn't mean King didn't have a valid point. Is taking a dealer's drugs - and the money he got from selling his drugs - stealing in the normal meaning of the word? Can ill-gotten gains be "stolen"? Can illegal substances? When drug dealers are arrested, their money and drugs are taken anyway. Except then it's called "confiscating."

Prosecutors and cops might say it's stealing when the drugs and money aren't turned in as evidence. But then the charges against King and Murray should have been failure to turn in evidence, not robbing drug dealers. That offense is worth termination and a hefty fine, not 315 years in federal prison.

Words can be tricky things at times, often working for us, then against us. In the case of King and Murray, two words first worked against them. Then their lawyers tried unsuccessfully to try to get those words to work for their clients.

The two words are "working for." As in that segment of the Stop Snitching DVD where a guy says that drug dealers working the corner of Edmondson Avenue and Brice Street weren't "catching cases" - meaning they seemingly operated with impunity, never getting arrested.

"Word is they work for King and Murray," the man in the Stop Snitching DVD says. "Don't nobody go to jail."

Did the words "work for King and Murray" mean drug dealers at Edmondson and Brice were working for King and Murray as confidential informants, as drug dealers or as both? Jurors never got to decide that. When lawyers for King and Murray asked Motz to let the jury watch Stop Snitching and decide for themselves, prosecutors objected, saying the DVD "was absolute hearsay in its rankest form." Motz ruled it couldn't be used as evidence.

So it was left to King to testify in his own defense. Perhaps grasping at straws, he gave examples of other things Baltimore cops did that weren't exactly by the book. At one point, he chided the department for using arrest quotas.

"Which are illegal," King said from the stand.

Illegal or not, Baltimore police have insisted repeatedly that there is no arrest quota policy. But in a city run by Democrats, we have to ask: Is this the party's definition of quota, or quota in the normal meaning of the word?

On the issue of affirmative action, especially at highly selective universities, Democrats insist they are against quotas. But they do believe elite colleges and universities should have a "critical mass" of "underrepresented" minorities. (Who thinks of these terms?)

So, to satisfy Democrats, let's no longer use the ugly term "quotas" when referring to police arrest policies. Let's use language Democrats can understand, language near and dear to their hearts.

Like "critical mass."

greg.kane@baltsun.com

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