Each year hundreds of innocent people are terrorized by law enforcement's overuse of their SWAT teams to effectuate searches and arrest warrants. These potentially traumatizing incidents are rarely publicized unless things truly go array. The public never hears about a SWAT team arresting the wrong person, or destroying a bystander's property in a search, but those who experience this first hand will never forget. There is little or no legal recourse for those who have been unjustly damaged by a SWAT raid, as cops are typically immune if they are acting on a properly executed warrant. Even if the warrant turns out to be unlawful, the mere fact the cops acted on the reasonable belief that it was valid is enough to avoid liability. When law enforcement's actions are so egregious as to warrant civil or criminal liability justice is often hard to achieve, as it usually comes down to a cop's word against the claimant's. And there are few lawyers willing to take on a case against the government with those odds.
Recently in Police Misconduct Category
Just months ago United State's Attorney's Office praised the work of law enforcement in ending a complex Washington D.C. heroin and cocaine trafficking ring. The investigation and subsequent prosecution led to 14 felony convictions, with most of the defendants ending up with prison sentences. But as of this week, only one defendant remains jailed, and the other 13 have been released from prison. Last week a federal judge threw their cases out upon recommendation by the very prosecutors who worked diligently to secure these convictions less than a year ago. The exact reasons for this dramatic sequence of events is unknown, but we do know that at least one corrupt FBI agent participated in the investigation. This particular agent, a 33-year old named Matthew Lowry, was found slumped over in his car with evidence bags containing heroin and firearms seized from the investigation. While this incident alone could create enough suspicion of wrongdoing to warrant new trials in the related cases, it's more likely that the prosecutors became aware of far greater corruption. Corruption that prompted immediate and unfettered action.
There are few law enforcement agencies in the state that receive as much negative publicity as the Baltimore City Police. Each year there are dozens of complaints filed for excessive use of force or other alleged abuses of authority, and there is a constant stream of officers being suspended or placed on leave with pay while being investigated. Some of these complaints make the news, and some end up in court as lawsuits, but the majority of these cases never reach the public's eye. Fortunately though, police administration and the mayor's office do take notice of each of these complaints, and it appears they are both committed to doing something about it. The solution may lie in a technology that is known as body cameras. The idea is simple enough to understand; all on duty officers would be equipped with forward facing video recording devices affixed to their person. But the implementation is not so simple, as there are a host of issues that must be tackled before the program can become a reality.
Just a couple months after a near unanimous vote by the city council, one of the strictest youth curfews is now officially the law of Baltimore City. Starting last Friday, all children under the age of 14 are required to be indoors at 9 p.m. every night of the week, unless accompanied by an adult. Juveniles between the ages of 14-16 must also be indoors by 10 p.m. on school nights, and at 11 p.m. on other nights. Any child caught violating the curfew will be taken to a youth connection center, where the parents or legal guardians will be notified. If the parents cannot be located then the department of social services and child protective services will become involved. Amidst national criticism, the mayor has strongly defended the curfew, stating numerous times that the intent of the law is to protect the children of Baltimore, and not to fight crime by enhancing police power. It's hard to argue with the goal of protecting the city's children, as nine children were killed this past year in Baltimore, a number that has more than doubled from last year. But still, there are those who believe the curfew is the wrong way to solve a serious problem.
Baltimore County police have been forced to arrest one of their own for the second time this summer as a 31 year-old officer now faces serious felony charges. Our regular Blog readers might remember an article published less than 6 weeks ago about a county cadet who was arrested for stealing evidence from police headquarters in Towson. That ex officer's case is still in its infancy stages after recently being forwarded to the circuit court, and already another soon to be ex cop is about to appear on the criminal docket as a defendant. Both cases are drug related, but the allegations extend far beyond simple use or possession. This latest embarrassing arrest began as a routine report of an attempted burglary, which turned out to be much more scandalous. Last week a man called 911 and reported that someone claiming to be a police officer was trying to break into his home by kicking in the door. While the burglar was not able to gain entry to the house, the man got a good enough look to give police a description of the burglar's appearance. Later that night police located the burglar after making a traffic stop on a speeding vehicle. It all seemed routine enough until the details were uncovered in the days that followed.
Starling news came out of Towson two weeks ago when a 20-year old police cadet was arrested for multiple drug and theft crimes. The story became even more compelling when the public learned the alleged crime was committed at Baltimore County Police headquarters. The cadet now stands accused of stealing thousands of dollars of seized cash and narcotics, which were being held in the department's evidence locker. Among the cadet's ten charges are theft between $10,000 and $100,000 and possession with intent to distribute narcotics, both of which are felonies. The cadet's case is tentatively set for a hearing in district court later this month, but the case will almost certainly be brought before a grand jury in circuit court sometime in the next couple of weeks, and an indictment is sure to follow. It is not entirely clear how a cadet with little experience gained access to the secure evidence locker without any supervision. There is apparently full video surveillance of the locker and regular audits of its contents, but whatever the department's security measures were, they were no enough to deter or stop the cadet from completing the theft. The impact of this embarrassing incident stretches far beyond the accused and the police department, as potentially dozens of unrelated criminal cases in the county may be affected as well.
Another chapter has recently been closed in a highly controversial Owings Mills law enforcement shooting. This past week, the Baltimore County State's Attorney's Office announced that charges will not be filed against any of the multiple FBI agents who shot and killed a suspect who was under investigation for drug trafficking. Public details of the shooting have been sparse, but we do know that the deceased was a 34 year-old man with a lengthy criminal history in Baltimore City, and alleged gang ties. The man had been under surveillance by local police and the FBI, but on the day in question back in April, something went terribly wrong. Various reports say that law enforcement surrounded the man when he was in his car, and ordered him out of the vehicle with weapons drawn. Officers identified themselves as police, and were all wearing visible law enforcement gear, but their efforts to peacefully detain their suspect were unsuccessful, as the man allegedly put his car into reverse and attempted to drive through a makeshift police blockade. At some point the man's car struck another vehicle, and it was at this moment when the FBI agents opened fire on the deceased, discharging a total of nineteen rounds. Six of the shots struck the man, and he died on the scene.
Two months ago a Baltimore County jury found a city police officer guilty of reckless endangerment in a bizarre and tragic training accident. Yesterday that police officer was sentenced to 60 days in jail and 2 years of reporting probation by a circuit court judge. The incident occurred just under one year ago at an abandoned state mental health facility. Several city police officers and trainees traveled to the county in order to use the facility as a tactical operations training ground. The cops were told to use training guns loaded with paintballs rather than bullets. And according to the incident reports all were using these simulated ammunition or simunition type weapons. All but a 19-year veteran of the force who fired his loaded firearm into a gathering of trainees huddled by a window. The bullet struck a young trainee in the head, resulting in severe brain damage and the loss of sight in one eye. County police and the state's attorney conducted a thorough investigation of the incident and charged the officer with second-degree assault and reckless endangerment. The defendant and his attorney elected to go to jury trial, undoubtedly after attempts to have the case dropped prior to trial failed. At the close of the four day trial, the jury game back with a guilty verdict on the reckless endangerment charge. The defendant was found not guilty on the second-degree assault count, which actually carries a greater maximum sentence of 10 years in jail compared to the 5-year max for reckless endangerment. Both charges are misdemeanors in Maryland.
Back in March the FBI and the United States Attorney announced the guilty plea of a Baltimore City Cop to numerous felony charges. The guilty plea, while not shocking to those of us familiar with big city law enforcement, landed the Baltimore Police Department in national news headlines. As a criminal defense law firm, we hear stories all the time about police misconduct and corruption. But theses stories rarely reach the public's ears because the incidents often end up being a cop's word against a criminal defendant's. But it certain cases, usually when the corrupt cops become too brash and greedy, they are caught in the act and plastered on newspapers and television. These stories offer little or no vindication for those that have been wronged by police, but it is nice to be reminded once in a while that nobody is above the law. The 36 year old city cop who plead guilty to drug conspiracy, and possession of a firearm in furtherance of a drug trafficking crime back in March is no exception.
The Baltimore City Police Department has announced that one of their own has been suspended with pay and is currently under investigation for excessive use of force during an arrest. The incident began when a 14-year-old boy was spotted driving a stolen car. Officers of the city police force's auto theft unit got wind of the whereabouts of the stolen vehicle being operated by the unlicensed driver and began their pursuit. Just minutes into the chase the inexperienced driver lost control of the car and went head on into a concrete curb, which briefly sent the vehicle airborne. The car then crashed into another parked vehicle in a commercial lot and came to its final stop. Seconds later multiple police cars arrived on scene, and with guns drawn pulled the juvenile out of the heavily damaged vehicle. As the boy was pulled out of the vehicle and surrounded by close to ten police officers, another officer ran up and appeared to strike the boy after he had been detained. Seconds later the same officer appeared to stand over and strike the boy once again. The only reason that this information has come to light is the fact that the entire incident was caught on video by a news helicopter. The helicopter began following the stolen car before it ran a curb and went crashing into a vehicle. The helicopter then stopped overhead and zoomed in on the boy being pulled out of the car.
Just two months ago the Blog posted an article about a police officer that was indicted on federal drug conspiracy and robbery charges. That particular officer, a 36-year-old man, will learn his fate at a June 11th sentencing hearing in federal court, and the embarrassing stain of his arrest and prosecution is still fresh on the minds of top cops at the Baltimore City Police Department. But Maryland's largest police department now faces yet another scandal involving a crooked officer. The United States Attorney's Office recently announced the filing of criminal charges and the subsequent arrest of a 25-year-old female police officer that hails from Pikesville. The criminal complaint alleges that the woman stood watch in her marked patrol car while a supposed drug dealer completed a heroin sale at a Baltimore area shopping center. The woman also allegedly provided the supposed drug dealer with information about the identity of police informants, which she obtained from department databases. Unfortunately for the soon to be ex-cop, the supposed drug dealer was actually an informant working with the FBI, and the entire transaction is now the basis for a variety of serious felony charges filed against her.
About a year ago the Blog posted an article addressing the issue of whether it is legal to video record a police officer engaging in his or her duties. While there is clearly no state or federal law prohibiting this protected First Amendment behavior, the answer is not so simple. In other words, despite no specific law prohibiting the act of filming a cop, it's not legal if the police can just arrest you for disorderly conduct or some other petty offense. A year ago, the Maryland Attorney General issued an opinion advising police departments around the state that the public has the right to video record its officers. The Department of Justice, or DOJ, also filed an 11-page letter with the court in a Baltimore City civil rights lawsuit. The lawsuit was based on a 2010 incident at the Preakness where a man's phone was confiscated after he was seen recording the police make an arrest. This DOJ letter pointed out that the Baltimore Police Department's policies do not adequately protect a citizen's right to record cops. Recently, the DOJ has once again reiterated its stance on this issue by filing another letter with the United States District Court in Maryland.
The FBI and the United States Attorney for the District of Maryland recently announced that a 36 year-old Baltimore Police officer has pleaded guilty to multiple drug and gun felonies. The investigation began in early 2012 when the feds received information from an anonymous source that the crooked cop was trafficking in stolen property. As a result of the tip and other corroborating information, feds secured a warrant to wiretap the officer's cellphone. Through the wiretap law enforcement learned that the officer was selling stolen iPhones, iPads, and other electronics, some of which were confiscated during arrests and never submitted into evidence. Federal investigators also became aware of a new development, that the officer was involved in a more sophisticated and organized criminal scheme with a street level drug dealer.
The drug dealer was actually a registered confidential informant with the Baltimore Police Department. A confidential informant is basically a civilian who has agreed to provide information to law enforcement and to participate in undercover investigations in exchange for avoiding criminal prosecution him or herself. On the street confidential informants have infamously been known as snitches, and this nickname has even appeared in television shows and movies. This particular confidential informant was a known drug dealer in the Northwest Baltimore area where the officer patrolled, and at some point the two entered into a business agreement. The officer would provide the drug dealer with information on a daily basis when and where it was safe to sell drugs without police interference. The officer was also accused of doctoring police reports by redacting the drug dealer's name and eliminating his involvement in crimes. In exchange for this protection, the drug dealer would provide the officer with information about other criminal activity, which the officer used to make arrests.
All Maryland police officers receive some sort of training in constitutional laws relating to search, seizure, and arrest. Constitutional law is by no stretch of the imagination the focus of any police academy's training program. There is just not enough time and too little resources to put every potential police officer through a rigorous classroom curriculum on the search and seizure laws. Even if this training were available, there are no guarantees that each trainee would retain the information, and or use it in while working out in the field. This is not to blame police officers, as it is much easier to sit down and write an essay on constitutional law than it is to follow decades of case law and statutory restrictions during the heat of an arrest. Yes, it is true that some police officers intentionally conduct illegal searches and seizures, and make bad arrests, but good intentioned police officers face the daily challenge of making split decisions to protect life and property, and sometimes there is just no room for the constitution. Therefore police officers will make unlawful arrests, and execute unlawful searches and seizures, and this should be the first issue that any criminal defense lawyer should investigate in any criminal case. But this blog entry is dedicated to those people who wish to avoid ever needing a criminal defense lawyer to address an unlawful arrest. Knowing the basic search and seizure laws is not a foolproof way of avoiding an arrest. Each year thousands of drug prosecutions for substances such as marijuana and cocaine are carried out using evidence that was illegally seized. In addition, hundreds of DUI investigations are initiated after police make an illegal traffic stop. But knowing the law just may help you get out of a sticky situation, and it certainly cannot hurt.
A Baltimore City police officer was recently charged with assault after being involved in an altercation in Harford County, Maryland. The exact facts surrounding the altercation are in dispute, but the Baltimore police officer certainly has an interesting explanation for how he became involved in the assault. The criminal charging document alleges that the 10 year Baltimore police veteran, who was off duty at the time, approached a parked vehicle with two occupants seated inside. The police officer was apparently yelling at the occupants to stop dealing drugs, and approached the car in a threatening manner despite not seeing any actual drug transaction taking place.
The charging document goes on to say that the off duty Baltimore cop pulled one of the occupants, a Bel Air, Maryland man, out of the car and committed the assault by slamming him to the ground. The Baltimore officer, who has not hired a criminal lawyer as of yet, then furthered the assault by allegedly pulling out his police semi automatic Glock 22 and pointing the gun in the face of the victim. While the Baltimore officer had his police issued pistol pointed at the victim, he was allegedly still yelling about the drug transaction that may or may not have occurred. There were witnesses to the entire incident, and one witness apparently called the Harford County police, which arrived on scene in minutes.