Arrests without charges linger

Bill would expunge records automatically for thousands in state

March 19, 2007|By Andrew A. Green | Andrew A. Green,Sun reporter

More than 21,000 people were arrested in Maryland last year and later released without charges, most of them in Baltimore. After they were freed, though, the records of their arrests lived on - photographs, fingerprints, reports and more, tucked away in police files and able to keep innocent people from getting jobs, mortgages, financial aid and professional licenses.

That's what happened to Melvin Baker, a West Baltimore man who says he was arrested three times in one week last year but never charged with a crime.

City police, who were sweeping his neighborhood looking for minor offenses such as loitering and open container violations, took him to Central Booking, fingerprinted him and then let him go.

"They call it a walk-through. They arrest you, have you sit for a few hours and cut you loose," said Baker, 27, who is trained as a forklift operator. "Now I don't get no jobs. The job I'm working now is through a temp agency, but as far as getting hired on my own, it won't work."

But momentum in the General Assembly is building behind a bill to automatically wipe out those arrest records, a measure proponents say could undo a fundamental injustice for thousands of people.

"It is an intrinsic wrong," said Del. Keith E. Haynes, a Baltimore Democrat, who is sponsoring the legislation. "The people who are getting caught up in this practice are average citizens. ... You've been through this, you did nothing wrong, and it prevents you from doing the kinds of things you want for a job, a mortgage, financial aid."

Arrests without charges have been a point of contention in Baltimore for years as the Police Department has aggressively cracked down on quality-of-life violations, such as loitering and public disturbances, in an effort to eliminate the conditions in which more serious crimes flourish.

Though some in the community applauded the efforts and demanded more enforcement, others called the practice a violation of civil liberties. The issue became a central focus of the governor's race last fall, when then-Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. and his allies accused then-Mayor Martin O'Malley of encouraging the unwarranted arrests of thousands of city residents, primarily African-Americans.

The American Civil Liberties Union and the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People have sued the city over the practice, and the Police Department has tightened its procedures in the past year in an effort to cut down on the number of arrests without charges.

Many of those involved in the criminal justice system have united behind the expungement effort, saying it is the state's duty to clear the names of those who are arrested but not charged.

"To me, it's a matter of justice," said Baltimore City State's Attorney Patricia C. Jessamy, who supports the bill. "These are individuals whose arrests brought no official charges. There are numerous impediments these citizens face every single day when it comes to getting jobs, getting housing, getting student loans. If you are in school, an arrest can really impede progress."

The bill passed the House of Delegates last week with bipartisan support, 130-9. It next goes to the Senate, where key lawmakers say it has a strong chance of passage. An O'Malley spokesman said the governor supports the bill. Mayor Sheila Dixon and Baltimore Police Chief Leonard D. Hamm also back the effort.

Although the bill would have a statewide effect, it is mostly focused on Baltimore. According to statistics from Jessamy's office, over 16,000 of the more than 21,000 arrests without charges statewide last year were in the city.

The Rev. Charles Neal, the minister of Dayspring Worship Center just outside the city on Reisterstown Road, founded Clergy for Justice last year to help the scores of people he heard from who were arrested but never charged.

Neal said he became active in the issue after he was arrested while on the way to a fellow pastor's service on a Sunday afternoon in May. He said he was pulled over because his car didn't have a front license plate, and he wound up spending about 17 hours in Central Booking. Neal, 45, said incidents such as his generated deep mistrust in the community.

"I was in a cell with about six other guys," Neal said. "There was no place to lay my head. I was lying completely on the floor. It was terrible. The living arrangements in that place are just not fit for an animal."

In 2005, Hamm ordered new training and heightened supervision for officers to improve the charging documents they filed. According to statistics from the state, the number of people who were released without charges went from about a third of arrests in 2005 to about a quarter in 2006.

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