Monday, March 22, 2010

Locking Up a Cop

The latest brouhaha between city prosecutor Pat Jessamy and the police arises from the arrest of a city police officer who failed to appear on time to testify in a gun case.

Judge Gale Rasin issued a “body attachment” to lock the officer up overnight at Central Booking. Not only was the situation potentially dangerous for the officer, it was downright humiliating.

City prosecutors said they had to request the body attachment or lose their case. Police say prosecutors didn’t need to have the officer locked up.

Judging from the subsequent accusations and hard feelings swirling around the internet, law enforcement cooperation has taken another hit. But this time they are all in it together, because everybody’s right and everybody’s wrong.

In late January 2009 city police officers Victoria Reynolds and Jason Shreves got a call at night for multiple young men, possibly armed, wearing ski masks and getting out of a vehicle. Officer Shreves was first on the scene and approached a parked minivan with two men inside. One of the men appeared to place something under the driver’s seat in front of him, and when Shreves shined his flashlight through the window he saw the butt of a gun.

Officer Reynolds arrived when Shreves was looking into the window and assisted him with pulling the suspects out of the car and searching it. They recovered the gun, ski masks, crow bars, and similar “criminal tools.”

Fast forward a year to last Monday afternoon. After four postponements, the case was finally sent to Judge Rasin’s court for trial. Rasin said that the trial had to be finished by Tuesday because she was not available the rest of the week. (According to the defense attorney on the video I watched, the lack of court availability created all the prior postponements.)

The defense first made a motion to keep the gun out of evidence, arguing that the police lacked probable cause to seize it. This required a hearing, but no police officers were present to testify. They had been placed “on call.”

Putting officers on call makes practical and economic sense for the police department. With so many postponements in the Circuit Court, letting them attend to other duties until really needed makes sense. But officers have an absolute duty to be available when the call comes.

The prosecutor told the judge that he could not get hold of Officer Reynolds, who was at the firearms range. He had called the range and was told she was dismissed for the day, and her personal cell phone was out of order. Judge Rasin gave him half an hour to bring her in, get a body attachment, or dismiss the case. After another hour or so, Judge Rasin issued the body attachment.

Prosecutors were right to say they would have lost the case without the body attachment. But they were wrong to tell the judge and the public that it was Officer Reynolds they needed. They needed Shreves. He had made all of the observations that led to seizing the gun. The judge ruled in the state’s favor solely on the basis of the testimony Shreves eventually gave Tuesday morning.

In fact, when the case went to trial before a jury, the prosecutor only called Shreves.

The prosecutor—a hard-working and dedicated young man--made an error in legal judgment. The officer he considered his “primary” witness—the one who wrote the police report—wasn’t the officer he needed on the defense motion.

But regardless of who the proper witness was, Reynolds was still supposed to be available. And the prosecutor did everything he could to forestall the arrest of Reynolds, including consulting with his supervisor, calling police supervisors, asking the judge to continue the case to the next day, and asking her to consider a police commander’s offer to charge Reynolds administratively and guarantee her appearance in court. He argued that it was rare for him to have to hunt down officers, and finally informed her that both of the officers were on their way. All to no avail.

Judge Rasin was the one determined to lock up Reynolds. At first it was about needing to finish the case by Tuesday. But that gave way almost immediately to extracting “a real consequence” from the police department.

Rasin learned that she was going to have time to hold the hearing Tuesday morning before she could get a jury panel. No practical reason existed any longer to lock up the officer, but Rasin wanted her pound of flesh.

When the prosecutor told her around 3 p.m. Monday that “Plan B”—Officer Shreves—was on his way to court, Rasin said she was “not sitting around waiting for another police officer.” When he subsequently told her that Reynolds had been reached and was also on her way to court, Rasin told him to hurry up and get the body attachment to her to sign, because otherwise it “would be a little awkward.”

In other words, even if Shreves or Reynolds arrived in time to testify on Monday, she wanted Reynolds arrested. She warned the sheriff and prosecutor not to extend any professional courtesy by warning Reynolds and giving her a chance to avoid the body attachment.

The next day, when an exhausted and emotional Reynolds was brought to court from jail, Rasin made her endure a long, condescending lecture about why she issued the body attachment “at the state’s attorney’s request.”

I don’t know whether Rasin has a bias against law enforcement agencies, but it sure appeared that way. She made a couple of mocking comments aimed at Police Commissioner Fred Bealefeld, and took a shot at prosecutors by claiming that they had “no apparent concern” for civilian witnesses who were locked up for “months.”

But perhaps her eagerness to lock up Reynolds is explained by a story she told about another handgun case she had where the officer was also at the firearms range. When told it was time to testify the officer said he was in a shooting competition, had just advanced to the next level, and wasn’t coming in.

She didn’t say what happened next, but I know I would have locked his rear end up if I had the chance. I recall my own murder case when my first scheduled witness, a police officer, failed to answer his phone when I called. He then had the gall to show up in the middle of the trial asking me to document his overtime.

Attitudes like these turn off judges and prosecutors, undermine the police mission, and need to be stamped out by the police department. Circling the wagons around officers who blow off court invites body attachments.

On the other hand, communication sometimes fails. And things happen. Just like when this case was postponed multiple times, leaving the defendant in jail for 14 months because the judiciary couldn’t get the case tried.

The Fraternal Order of Police, angry that the prosecutor didn’t choose to drop the case (and let the defendant go free), needs to cool its jets or risk losing all credibility.

But I understand the police suspicion of a state’s attorney (Pat Jessamy) who will sell them out whenever it suits her. I have touched on this subject more than once, such as in The Sad Truth Behind the Statistics, The Cost of Failed Teamwork, The Pot Calling Out the Kettle, and The Lie That Won’t Die.

More fundamentally, I understand their fierce protectiveness of their own. Because when it comes down to it, it isn’t me or the prosecutor or Judge Rasin who must walk up to a car at night with suspicious men inside. It’s Jason Shreves and Victoria Reynolds, who could have been blown away on the spot. (And after I drafted this, two officers did get shot.)

So I get their outrage over locking up Reynolds like a criminal. And I think Judge Rasin picked the wrong set of circumstances to make her point.

But she has also had enough experience with officers who don’t show up to have a point to make, which the police need to acknowledge and address.

As for Jessamy, if she isn’t going to work with the police, she should at least refrain from throwing stones while living in her own glass house.

Tuesday, March 16, 2010

Pat Jessamy's Priorities

Every legislative session Baltimore State’s Attorney Patricia Jessamy descends upon Annapolis amid a flurry of press releases that proclaim her ardent desire for better gun and gang laws to further the fight against violent crime.

But anyone who wants to know her real agenda need look no further than last Thursday’s state Senate hearing on a bill to increase penalties for convicted felons who carry guns.

Jessamy has complained about the current law for years. Now she had a chance to throw her weight behind a proposed law that has garnered support not only from police and prosecutors but from some leading defense attorneys as well.

Jessamy arrived with her usual entourage. WBAL-TV put her on the news that night and posted a story about her on its website. But it neglected to report that she never testified.

Steve Levin, a defense attorney and former federal prosecutor, wrote an eyewitness account of what happened at the Senate hearing.

After Baltimore mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake testified for the bill, Jessamy’s spokesperson and alter ego, Margaret Burns, was heard complaining that Rawlings-Blake hadn’t sufficiently praised Jessamy for her efforts against gun crime.

So when the committee took a break, Jessamy and her entourage left. This despite another WBAL report last month that Jessamy planned to "be in Annapolis all session long...advocating for stronger penalties for felons in possession of handguns."

Every other witness waited and testified, but not Jessamy. She packed up and went home.

Vintage Jessamy. When it comes right down to it, her real priorities are credit and control.

Jessamy's duty to the citizens who elected her was to testify on that bill. If she felt insulted by the mayor she could have privately complained later. Instead, she bailed on her constituents.

What’s especially ironic is that Jessamy deserves so little of the credit she tries to grab. For example, she had the chance to be an innovative leader against violent crime with the War Room years ago but buried the program instead. When the city gave her a team of prosecutors to focus on dangerous offenders who violate probation she had no idea what to do until federal prosecutors created the blueprint.

It's mainly through the leadership of U.S. Attorney Rod Rosenstein that Baltimore has effectively focused on violent offenders in recent years. The State Department of Public Safety added its own program, the Violence Prevention Initiative, and the Mayor’s office created Gunstat.

In other words, all of the creative vision and leadership have come from outside Jessamy's office. Jessamy initiated nothing, other than press releases. She just follows along, demanding credit as she goes.

And the others give it to her, too, especially Rosenstein and Sheryl Goldstein, who heads the Mayor's office on criminal justice. They try as hard as they can to forge a harmonious relationship. It’s never enough.

What's particularly disheartening is Jessamy's return to the "disrespect" card that she played so often and so well after Mayor Martin O'Malley, a white male, openly insulted her work ethic and judgment nearly a decade ago. She retaliated by attacking and undermining O'Malley's police department and came out the "winner" by staying in office. The losers, of course, were the citizens of Baltimore.

But now Jessamy plays the card against an African-American female like herself, someone who just took office as mayor in challenging times and who testified in support of the same bill Jessamy supports.

It isn't about disrespect after all. Or what's in the interest of public safety. It's about Pat Jessamy's desire to be top dog.

I see stormy clouds ahead. Watch for ecalating leaks and negative stories about the police department as a means of controlling the mayor. Jessamy and her hatchet woman, Burns, may be gearing up for another public feud based on nothing more than Jessamy's insatiable ego.

Related prior articles:

Baltimore's Failed War Room
Baltimore's Violent Crime: The Good News
The Cost of Failed Teamwork
The Pot Calling out the Kettle

Tuesday, March 9, 2010

Getting it Wrong, Getting it Right

What a wretched job the Baltimore Sun did in reporting on a Maryland Senate committee’s vote to approve the appointment of Thomas Miller III as Anne Arundel County District Court judge. Miller is the son of Senate President Thomas “Mike” Miller.

That in itself is newsworthy, that the Democratic governor appointed the son of the Democratic Senate President as a judge. But the Sun utterly missed reminding the public what made this nomination controversial if not odorous.

The story did mention that three members of the county judicial nominating commission resigned when Miller’s name was forwarded to Governor Martin O’Malley for consideration in 2008.

But it failed to report that the commission had first found young Miller not qualified. It reversed itself when O’Malley ordered them to forward more names from the same list it had already considered, following by some heavy politicking from “political types” on behalf of Miller. This is what prompted the resignations, something I found both unusual and brave at the time.

With the Sun reporting every move by Attorney General Douglas Gansler to rid the state of judicial elections, it needs to report the other side of the coin, the smarminess of leaving the choices to politicians.

On the other hand, how refreshing it was to see the Sun’s Michael Dresser dress down House Judiciary Chairman Joe Vallario for his rudeness, distortion of facts, and inability to separate his profession as a defense attorney from the public interest.

It’s great that Vallario takes a hard look at bills promoted by law enforcement types and politicians. Many of them aren’t really necessary or are flawed because they were hastily drafted in response to some high profile tragedy.

But Vallario consistently stands in the way of beneficial legislation based on his bias as a defense attorney. And it’s a bias, all right.

Take a bill he actually allowed to become law some years back, a little provision that deprived the Circuit Court of the power to try a misdemeanor drug case. Only the District Court can try these cases unless the defendant decides to take it to the Circuit Court or the drug charge is part of a more serious case.

This was a new and curious exception to the broad jurisdiction always granted to the Circuit Court and had only one conceivable motivation: to deprive prosecutors of the ability to combine drug possession cases with more serious cases at the Circuit Court. District Court judges would have to make sentencing decisions without knowledge of the other cases. Divide and conquer.

Vallario never would have let a bill pass that stripped defense attorneys of the chance to choose their court. But it was okay to do it to prosecutors to give the defense an advantage.

And now he can’t bring himself to require citizens charged with traffic violations to request a trial, even if they already do it for parking tickets. Although it would save the taxpayers money and allow police officers to spend more time on the street, Vallario won't make a defendant check a box and use a stamp. And he’s rude to the police chiefs who dared to suggest such a thing, to boot.

It’s way past time for the House Speaker to find another chairman without a conflict of interest. Good for Dresser for having the guts to suggest as much on the Sun pages.

Related prior articles:
The Politics of Picking Judges