Just follow the law

Our view: It's the city's fault that its gun offender registry has been ruled unconstitutional

simple changes can fix the problem

April 11, 2011

A Baltimore judge's ruling that one of the city's signature programs against gun violence is unconstitutional likely won't cause officials to abandon the effort. But it should be a wake-up call for police to clarify the law's requirements and then make sure they file all the paperwork needed to put it into effect — something that should have been done long ago.

The case involved a recently released felon named Adrian Phillips, who was charged with failing to comply with a city ordinance requiring defendants convicted of gun crimes to register with the police within 48 hours of their release from prison.

The law, passed by the City Council in 2009, was intended to give officers another tool to keep track of the violent repeat offenders whom Police Commissioner Frederick H. Bealefeld III says commit most of the city's serious crimes — the so-called "bad guys with guns" who are a top priority for his department.

But last week, Baltimore Circuit Court Judge Alfred Nance dismissed the charges against Mr. Phillips on the grounds that the law requiring gun felons to register is "unconstitutionally broad and overly vague" because it fails to spell out exactly what kinds of information people who enroll in the program are required to supply.

Those requirements were supposed to have been codified in regulations issued by Commissioner Bealefeld and then filed with the city's Department of Legislative Reference. And the law specifically states that such regulation must be filed before the statute can take effect.

Yet, although Mr. Bealefeld apparently wrote the rules, his department never got around to filing them with the city as required.

As a result, Judge Nance essentially accepted the defense's argument that since the department never followed through on its responsibility to make public information that was clearly required before the statute could be enforced, Mr. Phillips had no way of knowing whether he was complying with the law or not.

If people have to actually go into what Judge Nance called "the bowels of the police department" just to find out whether they're in compliance with the law, there's nothing to prevent police from turning a routine registration process into an open-ended interrogation on any subject they wish — and threatening to charge them with failure to register if they don't respond.

What's puzzling is that police could have easily avoided such a challenge to the law if they had simply followed it themselves. An official in the mayor's office says the police never considered the simple four-part forms that people enrolling in the gun offender registry fill out as "regulations" under the law that must be filed with the city.

Still, the department's failure to file them for the past two years is baffling, especially since officials had every reason to believe that defense lawyers were looking for a case to test the law's constitutionality. Yet they did nothing to rectify the law's most obvious shortcoming, which is that it would remain unenforceable until the regulations were filed — even if they were just the forms used to enroll people in the program.

That's something that should have been done years ago, but presumably department officials can still do so relatively easily. While they're at it, they should probably also go over the rules more formally to make certain the limits on the types of information police can demand from people enrolled in the gun offender registry are spelled out clearly and unambiguously.

There's plenty of evidence that the gun offender registry has played an important role in reducing violent crime in Baltimore. Former offenders in the program are less likely to re-offend and much less likely to commit another crime involving guns. Police officials should do whatever is necessary to allow the gun registry to remain an effective crime-fighting tool — starting by doing what the law requires them to do.

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