Baltimore wiretaps appear regularly on prosecutors' calendars

State's Attorneys must personally swear to the applications of their teams

March 07, 2013|By Ian Duncan, The Baltimore Sun

Like many of the criminals they chase, the top prosecutors in Baltimore and Baltimore County are regularly hauled before judges, not to answer for their misdeeds, but to make wiretap applications.

In Baltimore, investigators asked for as many as 32 wiretaps or renewals in the past two years; in the county, 14. Each authorization is good for a month and can cover multiple phone lines.

Under Maryland law, a local government's top prosecutor must be present for a judge to sign off on a wire, so the schedules of Baltimore County State's Attorney Scott D. Shellenberger and Baltimore State's Attorney Gregg L. Bernstein offer a glimpse into the frequency of the investigative technique.

"It's the one thing the state's attorney has to do himself. It can't be delegated," Shellenberger said. "When you're talking about intercepting oral communications on telephones, it's really one of the highest-protected rights."

Usually, prosecutors are the ones asking questions in court, but Shellenberger said he must be under oath and testify that the information supporting the application is true.

Mark Cheshire, a spokesman for Bernstein, said most Baltimore wiretaps are filed on behalf of the major investigations unit, which looks into serious crimes and targets repeat offenders.

The Baltimore Sun obtained the past two years' calendars for the state's attorneys and their top deputies under a public-records request. The calendars also show how closely involved the chief prosecutors are in the day-to-day work on cases.

Cheshire said Bernstein's office has doors connecting to two of his deputies' offices. Eschewing the phone, he likes to yell to get their attention, Cheshire said, and regularly grills other prosecutors on their cases.

"He's really involved in a lot," Cheshire said.

But the number of public events on Shellenberger's calendar also points to his role as an elected official.

"I'm still a politician, so I go to community meetings, go to schools, go to functions that I think are important for me to stay in touch," he said.

The dual life keeps him busy.

"You'll notice that there's no lunches on my calendar," he said. "I eat at my desk."

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