The Scales Of Justice Were Off

April 15, 2009|By PETER HERMANN

The first question everyone should've asked was how 4 pounds of marijuana could fit in a sandwich bag.

It couldn't, of course, and that answer at the start of this case might have prompted authorities to charge three men with misdemeanors that might have stuck instead of with felonies that prosecutors later dropped.

The suspects walked free for what appears to be an honest mistake in weighing the drugs and omitting a decimal point in a court charging document riddled with grammatical errors and missing words.

Police wrote that a search of a car stopped on East 33rd Street in January revealed "a clear sandwich bag containing 1826 grams of a green plant like substance suspected marijuana do to color, smell and appearance."

That's a mighty big sandwich bag, large enough to hold slightly more than 4 pounds of bread, salami, tomatoes and just about everything else behind the deli counter. The cops charged the driver, 37-year-old Derrick A. Shuron, and two passengers with possessing drugs with intent to distribute.

The "green plant like substance" was submitted to the police crime lab for testing and the official weigh-in, but the results weren't available in time for a preliminary hearing a month after the arrest. Margaret T. Burns, a spokeswoman for the city state's attorney's office, told me that the prosecutor talked to officers in the case and was assured that, due to the drug seizure, everyone in the car should face charges. They proceeded with the case.

Burns said the lab report wasn't available when a grand jury met April 3. The grand jury proceeded with the case, and the men were indicted on felony drug charges.

Three days later, the lab report revealed a startling conclusion: The drug seized in the sandwich bag was indeed marijuana, weighing just 24.57 grams.

That's less than an ounce.

I won't even try to assess how many joints that makes, but it's certainly a lot fewer than the "bricks" of pot conjured up by the number "1826."

It is also the difference between five years in prison and one year in jail.

Shuron's attorney, Jason Silverstein, told me that he thinks the officers meant to write 18.26 grams, using a faulty measurement made at the district station. "I don't think there was any malicious intent on the part of the officer," Silverstein said.

Burns agreed: "An honest mistake," she said. The prosecutor's office dropped the charges against all three men Monday.

The spokeswoman said the prosecutor tried but was unable to reach the arresting officer to explain why the charges weren't being pursued and to let him know that he can recharge the suspects with misdemeanor crimes.

Baltimore police Maj. Delmar Dickson, commander of the Northeastern District, where the car stop was made, said officers are not supposed to put the weight of seized drugs in initial police reports and charging documents because the official weight is to come from the crime lab, where properly trained technicians use properly balanced scales. The policy is meant to avoid problems just like this.

"That's a training issue on my part," Dickson said, adding that he would look into why the officer didn't get back to prosecutors and whether the case should be redone. "This is a simple amendment to a charging document," the major said. "It shouldn't be thrown out for that."

I agree. But in this case, unlike others, a whole slew of authorities had plenty of chances to ask probative questions before a trial date was set, and the case still made it through a hearing and past a grand jury.

You can indict a ham sandwich, the saying goes, but authorities and grand jurors alike need to make sure the sandwich bag fits.

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