Finding a way to rebalance the scales of justice

May 27, 2007|By C. Fraser Smith

In the quest for public safety, law enforcement officials in Baltimore put a cloud over innocent people - and left it there.

Maryland Del. Keith E. Haynes found a way to push the cloud aside. His effort, successful after two years, might have broad significance.

For several years, the 44th District delegate, a Democrat, had heard disturbing stories from constituents. Thousands of people were being arrested in Baltimore for loitering and other minor offenses, thrown in jail and then released without a trial.

One man told Mr. Haynes of encountering a police officer who threw waste paper on the ground and ordered him to pick it up.

When he refused, he was arrested and charged with failure to obey a police officer.

The man spent a day in jail before prosecutors threw out the case. He missed a day of work, lost his job and walked out of jail with an arrest record.

"People call me because they know I'm a lawyer," he said. "`What can I do?' they'd ask."

The answer then: not much. The process for removing an arrest record - officially called expungement - was costly and laborious.

"The average person," he said, "doesn't know how to navigate the system. They're stuck."

The issue is intensely personal, but it has broad implications. People saw what appeared to be preventive, mass arrests - taking people off the street to lower the incidence of crime. Critics called it an unconstitutional denial of freedom. Others thought it was more proof that the criminal justice system had no concern for everyday Baltimoreans. Confidence in the police and the courts, already low, was falling further.

Anyone who doubts that police might provoke an arrest, Mr. Haynes said, should consider the state's attorney's response to many of the charges police filed. Many of the charges were dismissed, unfairly leaving thousands of people with arrest records.

And the undeserved record could be more or less permanent, depending on the patience and resources of the person arrested and his or her willingness to forgo legal redress for what might seem an outrage. If a person chose to seek removal of the record, he or she had to agree not to sue the police. "In order to protect one right - against false arrest - you had to give up another right," your right to a day in court, Mr. Haynes said.

An attorney in the offices of Peter G. Angelos, Delegate Haynes had filed a bill to streamline the process in the 2006 legislative session. It would have made expungement automatic and stripped out the objectionable restrictions on lawsuits. It failed, but he brought it back this year during the session that ended in April.

This time, he had allies: the Job Opportunities Task Force, the Homeless Persons' Representation Project and the American Civil Liberties Union, which had filed a lawsuit protesting the number of arrests.

Without involving himself in the politics of the city's project of crime suppression by arrest, the delegate began buttonholing senators as the bill was being considered in the House, where it passed easily. A number of Republican senators agreed to support the bill - even after one of them spoke against it on the Senate floor.

The bill required a lot of heavy legislative lifting. Mr. Haynes had to overcome the suspicion of anything that might give comfort even to those who are merely suspected of breaking the law. And it was mostly a Baltimore problem.

"People thought, `If it's not my problem, why should I go out on a limb?' I had to explain how unfair it was," he said.

His task was to find common ground. The former police chief and county executive of Howard County, James N. Robey, voted for the bill. Likewise two reliably conservative senators decided he was right on the issue.

The concern for law and order, the delegate said, is not confined to the suburbs. The overwhelming priority of people he meets at community meetings in Baltimore is public safety. At the same time, there was a sense of injustice - and a feeling that it wouldn't change.

Police were saying it was just a matter of poor writing of offense reports.

Delegate Haynes stayed out of that debate. He wondered, though, if people might have more faith in the system if callous support of obvious injustice could be ended. He had done his part.

As of Oct. 1, when the new law goes into effect, an arrest record will be erased automatically within 60 days - without relinquishing of the right to sue.

C. Fraser Smith is senior news analyst for WYPR-FM. His column appears Sundays in The Sun. His e-mail is fsmith@wypr.org.

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