6,000 dropped cases? This can't be good

Are the no-shows related to Baltimore's police-prosecutor disconnect?

August 29, 2010|By Dan Rodricks

Anyone who has spent significant time observing the dockets in the District Court of Maryland for Baltimore City has noticed some changes over the years: The police officers don't know the prosecutors as well as they used to, and vice-versa; police officers and witnesses frequently fail to appear, and when that happens, cases are more often dropped or put on the inactive docket than they are postponed for another day.

In the last 20 years of occasional visits to the various district courts around town — North Avenue, Wabash Avenue, Patapsco Avenue — I've had longer waits to hear sworn testimony. Cases are called, names are called, and no one's there. Cases are scratched, one after another.

Between July 2009 and June 2010, district court criminal cases were dropped or put on the inactive docket 2,944 times because a police officer didn't show up and 2,842 times because the witness or victim did not appear.

Combined, that's 44 percent of the more than 13,000 district court cases that were dropped or placed on the inactive docket.

Anybody troubled by this?

A lot of these cases are misdemeanors, of course, and some are preliminary hearings to determine whether defendants should be charged with crimes, including felonies. Unless you were to look at charging documents, you'd have no idea what the allegations were (destruction of property, forged checks, drug possession or distribution, assault, and a whole lot more), which of the dropped cases were more serious than others, and which of the defendants were more of a danger to the public than others.

While there have always been no-show cops and witnesses, it seems to me that, back when all the district courtrooms were inside Baltimore police district buildings — and not consolidated into three court buildings — there were more trials, more witnesses, more police officers testifying. If an assistant state's attorney looked up and didn't see Officer Krupke when needed, someone went looking and yelling for him in the adjoining hallways. You could hear, "Hey Krupke!" beyond the swinging courtroom door.

In the old days, prosecutors worked closely — some reformers said too closely — with police.

That changed when the new court buildings physically separated law enforcement from criminal justice; judges and court personnel no longer worked in the same space as the police, and the prosecutors no longer seemed to be pals with cops.

Some people, including Patricia Jessamy, the longtime Baltimore state's attorney running for re-election, think this is a good thing. "We don't want a police state in Baltimore City," she said after a campaign sign for her opponent, Gregg Bernstein, appeared on the front lawn of the police commissioner's home this summer.

The episode highlighted the contentious relationship between Mrs. Jessamy and various Baltimore police commissioners — and, between 1999 and 2007, when Martin O'Malley was in office, its mayor. She downplays the problem and claims her relationship with the present commissioner, Frederick Bealefeld, had been good until the Bernstein sign went up. (Subsequent to the controversy he stirred — and to making his point — the commissioner removed the sign.)

But many others connected to criminal justice say the police-prosecutor disconnect is a serious problem — right to the grass-roots level, in the district court.

Courtrooms shouldn't be in police stations, but too much separation between cops and prosecutors is not healthy, especially if it contributes to cases being dropped.

Margaret Burns, who often speaks for Mrs. Jessamy and provides information to the news media, said prosecutors "routinely ask for postponements" but that it's up to judges to grant them.

But an experienced Baltimore judge, who asked not to be identified when we spoke the other day, said prosecutors "never" ask for postponements when the arresting officer or witness fails to appear. "In fact," the judge said, "when I am about to give a defendant a postponement to get a lawyer, the prosecutor tells me that he hasn't heard from the police officer, so they enter a nol pros (not prosecute)."

So, another troubling aspect of Baltimore criminal justice for voters to consider: Why do nearly 3,000 police no-shows occur, and why are they tolerated? What about an almost equal number of witnesses failing to appear? This might not be happening if prosecutors had a better relationship with police, and vice versa, from the top down. They don't have to be pals, as in the old days. But certainly there must be a way to fix this, and to serve public safety, without creating the police state Mrs. Jessamy fears.

Dan Rodricks' column appears Tuesdays, Thursdays and Sundays. He is the host of Midday with Dan Rodricks on WYPR-FM. His e-mail is dan.rodricks@baltsun.com.

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