Prosecutor sorts through thousands of warrants

Baltimore law enforcement prepares for Safe Surrender

May 29, 2010|By Peter Hermann, The Baltimore Sun

At the time, the Baltimore cop had a solid bust. He said he had caught a man drinking a beer in public and found what he believed was heroin stuffed in his pocket. The suspect went to jail, got bailed out, but didn't show up for trial.

A judge issued a warrant for his arrest. That was July 6, 2000.

The warrant went unserved for nearly a decade. Last week, Patricia Deros, the chief prosecutor at Eastside District Court, tossed the tattered case folder onto the floor next to her desk and into a growing pile of old and now hard-to-prove crimes the Baltimore State's Attorney's Office chooses to pursue no longer.

The reason in this particular case: A key witness needed to verify the substance the man had in his pants actually was heroin is no longer available. Explained Deros: "The police chemist is dead."

It's one of many long-forgotten cases that remain active but buried in battered filing drawers and in computer databases in courthouses throughout Baltimore. There are more than 40,000 unserved arrest warrants in the city, some dating back to the early 1980s, and Deros is doing some spring cleaning to pull cases that are no longer viable.

There is a reason for her madness.

Baltimore authorities are preparing for Operation Safe Surrender, a voluntary turn-in program for fugitives wanted on warrants. They want to cleanse their files to make sure these old cases can be disposed of quickly.

Over four days in June, people sought in connection with nonviolent misdemeanors and felonies will be allowed to surrender at a West Baltimore church in exchange for leniency.

"It is not an amnesty program in sense of the word," Deros cautioned. "All we can say that we will offer favorable consideration. We will do what we can to not incarcerate people."

It's scheduled to run June 16 through 19 at the New Baptist Metropolitan Church on McCulloh Street. Anyone who knows or thinks he or she has an open warrant is urged to come, chat with a prosecutor, meet with a public defender — and even see a judge (at a community center across the street), and stop being a fugitive from justice.

Baltimore joins 16 other cities across the country, including Washington, Newark and Philadelphia, that have tried this approach to finding absconders accused mostly of nuisance crimes. Three years ago in Washington, 530 people surrendered in a church over three days, and the district's prison spokesman, Leonard A. Sipes Jr., said officials wished they had kept it going for a week.

Deros said officials believe a church is a non-threatening and trusted environment. "They come here, they think they're going to get arrested," the veteran prosecutor said of her courthouse. "And that is not the intent of this program."

Warrants go unserved for a variety of reasons. Many are for crimes so minor — drinking and urinating in public, traffic offenses, passing bad checks for petty amounts — that it would be a waste of time and resources to have cops banging on doors. These warrants are left in the system. If the wanted person gets arrested for another crime or pulled over for speeding, the open warrant pops up on a computer screen.

Baltimore officials are planning a media and advertising blitz starting with a news conference Tuesday with the U.S. marshal's office and Baltimore State's Attorney Patricia C. Jessamy.

In preparation, Deros, who supervises all the prosecutors at Eastside and works her own docket of cases, has spent hundreds of hours emptying file drawers of old warrants. At Eastside, she had gotten through the 'W's' by the end of Monday morning. It took her two days to go through the 'A's' and 'B's' at the District Court building on Wabash Avenue.

She pulls files one by one, looking at the date, then at the arresting police officer or the citizen who swore out the complaint, and then whether the case could be successfully prosecuted. Those that name arresting officers who are no longer on the force, or dead, automatically get tossed. Same with dead chemists in drug cases. Or suspects who are just too old.

It requires judgment calls.

Can a police officer still identify a man he arrested a decade ago for drinking a beer on a public street? She doesn't think it's possible. Can an employee charged with stealing a trailer from a visiting carnival in 2000 be found? Not likely. How about an 18-year-old shoplifting case from a grocery store that closed its doors a decade ago? Case dismissed. A man accused of trespassing at a public housing complex in 1997? Not a chance. A 1996 theft case from Odyssey Restaurant? "I'm not ever sure that it exists anymore," the prosecutor said.

But not every case gets thrown quickly. Deros sends postcards to victims and witnesses to see if they're still interested in pursuing the charges, such as a woman who 14 years ago swore out a complaint against her son accusing him of stealing her cell phone.

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