Lawyer calls arrest illegal

Complaint comes alongside criticism of police's detaining practices

February 17, 2007|By Gus G. Sentementes | Gus G. Sentementes,Sun reporter

Fending off criminal charges for his clients has been Nicholas Panteleakis' legal career in Baltimore. But the 34-year-old city public defender recently found himself playing the role of defendant after his arrest on a loitering charge on The Block, downtown's adult entertainment district.

As he left the Hustler Club, Panteleakis said, he saw two young men fighting and city police officers rushing over to break it up. Panteleakis said he asked one of the officers to use less force -- an intervention that he said ultimately led to his arrest.

He was charged Feb. 7 with one count of loitering, but prosecutors dismissed the case Thursday. Now, the lawyer is upset with the city Police Department for what he said was an unnecessary, illegal arrest that could have ruined his legal career.

"I've defended people who have told me exactly that what happened to me has happened to them in the past -- I'd hear it and take it for what it's worth," Panteleakis said. "Then to see it happen to me the exact same way makes me believe [my clients] even more."

Matt Jablow, a city police spokesman, said in a written statement that "it appears from what we know that the officer did the right thing under the circumstances."

Panteleakis' arrest comes amid continuing criticism of the Police Department's arrest practices. The department is defending itself in a class action lawsuit filed by the American Civil Liberties Union and the National Associated for the Advancement of Colored People, which have alleged a broad pattern of "illegal arrests" through the improper use of the city's anti-loitering laws and other misdemeanor infractions.

"It is incomprehensible to me that these flagrantly illegal arrests continue to happen," said David Rocah, staff attorney for the ACLU's Maryland chapter. "It is not a crime to argue with the police officer, ... and the police don't get to arrest somebody just because they don't like what they're saying, or don't like them pointing out problems in what they're doing. Not in the United States."

The scenario left Panteleakis playing two roles that day: defendant and victim. He said a credit card was stolen during his stay in the city lockup.

After spending a few hours at the club, where he said he had three beers and a little champagne, Panteleakis walked out into the 400 block of E. Baltimore St. about 2 a.m. Outside, he saw two men fighting. He said police quickly arrived and used pepper spray on the men. He said he watched an officer jab one man three times with a baton.

"I said to the officer, `Hey, you don't have to do that. ... He's falling backward. You don't have to hurt him,'" Panteleakis said. The officer told Panteleakis to walk away or face arrest for loitering, he said. The lawyer argued that he wasn't loitering, and he was arrested.

Police charging documents portray a slightly different version of events. An officer saw a "disturbance" outside the Hustler Club, with "several individuals" fighting. After police broke up the fight, Panteleakis "attempted to argue with me," Officer Brian Righter wrote, adding that he advised him to leave the area because he was loitering.

The officer wrote that he noticed Panteleakis had a "strong smell of alcohol on him," was slurring his speech and was blocking "the free flow of traffic" on the sidewalk. Righter wrote in the report that he asked Panteleakis four times to leave and then arrested him.

Panteleakis said that he wasn't drunk and that Righter arrested him only after he told the officer he didn't believe he was loitering.

Righter, a 12-year veteran who works in the Central District, had the charging document approved by Sgt. Steven Histon.

The charging document passed prosecutorial review at Central Booking that same day. Margaret T. Burns, a spokeswoman for the Baltimore state's attorney's office, said the case was initially deemed "legally sufficient" and scheduled for the District Court's early disposition docket. She said Panteleakis' charge was dropped because of "prosecutorial discretion."

Released from Central Booking about six hours after his arrest, Panteleakis discovered that someone had stolen his credit card. He said he thinks the theft occurred after his wallet was checked as property at the booking center.

Someone ran up nearly $1,000 in charges within hours of the theft, with about $800 spent at a Target store in Pikesville, he said.

Benjamin Brown, assistant commissioner for the Maryland Division of Pretrial Detention and Services, which operates Central Booking, said that missing property is rare at the booking center and that the jail reimburses people for the cost of lost property if it was shown to be in the facility's possession.

"It's a problem we're concerned with, but it's not major," Brown said. "Unfortunately, we get more false claims than legitimate ones."

Panteleakis said that he will try to get the arrest expunged from his record and that he plans to file a formal complaint next week with the Police Department's internal affairs division.

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