Prosecutors drop gun charges over search

Police detained, arrested man after they say he was flashing gang signs

October 27, 2006|By Annie Linskey | Annie Linskey,SUN REPORTER

Prosecutors dropped charges yesterday against a man arrested near Lexington Market who police say was flashing gang signs and carrying a 12-gauge shotgun in his jeans, determining that the officers did not have a legal reason to search the man.

The case and its outcome shine a light on a tricky legal issue that police and prosecutors grapple with as they combat a growing gang problem in the city: At what point do outward signs of gang membership amount to suspicious behavior?

Police say that in mid-August the man was hanging out on Saratoga and Eutaw streets near Lexington Market. When police approached him, the man failed to directly answer questions and averted eye contact - behavior police said was suspicious and gave the officer the right to detain and search the man.

Police said an officer found a Mossberg shotgun loaded with five buckshot rounds. The serial number of the gun had been removed.

"We think the case ... should have been presented to a jury," said Matt Jablow, a spokesman for the city Police Department. "We're disappointed it won't be, but we do understand the prosecutor's position."

Police went to Saratoga Street initially because a person monitoring footage from police surveillance cameras saw several men wearing suspected gang colors and suggested that officers should interview the men "for intel purposes," according to police charging documents. Police have been aggressively gathering information about suspected gang members.

The police video shows a group of five to eight men standing on the corner, some wearing red hats and shirts - a color associated with the Bloods gang. One of the men appears to be teaching others how to do a complicated handshake that police described as a gang signal.

When police arrive, one walks away with an awkward gait. Other men run. Five of the men are rounded up and seated on the sidewalk with their backs against a store. The officers question each man, and when they get to Lamont Johnson, an officer seizes a 14-inch sawed-off shotgun, holds it up and then lays it on the front of his police car.

Prosecutors charged Johnson, 22, of Owings Mills with five weapons offenses. Later, a grand jury indicted him on two of those charges, and the suspect remained jailed. But, as prosecutors investigated the laws governing searches and seizures, they determined that the officer didn't have enough evidence to detain the suspect.

"No criminal statue prohibits gang members from gathering and displaying their symbols or signs," said Margaret T. Burns, a spokeswoman for the state's attorney's office. "The fact that they are observing gang activity is not a crime."

Prosecutors said Johnson was entitled to walk away. "That was his right," Burns said. "The mere presence of gang activity is not enough. [The officer] didn't have authority to make that order [to stay]."

Although Johnson will not face gun charges in Baltimore, his legal problems did not end after yesterday's court hearing. Police, prosecutors and Johnson's defense attorney said they expect this incident to trigger a violation-of-probation hearing in Baltimore County.

Johnson is on probation for an assault conviction in 2003. He also was convicted on a first-degree burglary charge that year. In addition, there is a warrant for his arrest in Howard County on an assortment of burglary and theft charges.

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