A longtime Towson-based defense attorney who represents accused drug dealers is being investigated for allegedly smuggling prescription pills to her clients inside the Baltimore County jail, police said.
Elise Armacost, a county police spokeswoman, said attorney Jill Swerdlin had been on the "radar screen" of police since early 2012 as someone who may have been involved in the distribution of prescription drugs. Then, earlier this year, police got another tip that a defense attorney was smuggling drugs into the jail, Armacost said, which led them to Swerdlin.
Police have not said how Swerdlin allegedly brought drugs into the county detention center. Some lawyers who frequently visit the jail say it has less stringent policies for checking those entering the facility than some other correctional centers, including the Baltimore City Detention Center.
The allegations of smuggling drugs into the jail come as correctional facilities in Maryland are under increased scrutiny. The Baltimore City jail was at the center of a scandal in which a gang allegedly took over operations and ran a contraband-smuggling operation there, and a Western Maryland prison has been beset by a string of serious assaults on correction officers.
Those facilities are overseen by the state, while the county jail is managed locally.
Swerdlin, 46, a member of the Maryland State Bar Association since 1991 and a former public defender, has been charged in a separate case with her 20-year-old son, Brett, and seven other co-defendants with conspiracy to possess and distribute Oxycodone, according to an indictment unsealed by the Baltimore County state's attorney's office last week.
That indictment, which includes few details, doesn't cover alleged activities at the county jail, Armacost said. The alleged distribution of drugs at the detention center remains under investigation, she said.
"A larger investigation has grown out of the Swerdlin case, but because it is still an active investigation, we are not commenting on it at this time," Armacost said in an email. She added that "the investigation does not show that Swerdlin was operating a large-scale, organized drug ring — inside the detention center or outside of it."
Swerdlin declined to comment Monday. She said last week after being released that she was "focusing on taking care of my kids and my family" and would be hiring an attorney. She was arrested along with her son, a legal assistant and others on Sept. 30, according to police and court records. Her bail was set at $25,000.
Deborah J. Richardson, director of the county detention center, did not return a request for comment Monday.
Baltimore County does not pat down attorneys visiting inmates, according to several local lawyers — unlike at the Baltimore City Detention Center.
Brian G. Thompson, a defense attorney who frequently handles cases in Baltimore County, said lawyers visiting clients in the detention center there must pass through metal detectors. Attorneys can only bring in files and must leave briefcases in a locker. They can get permission before a visit to bring an iPad, he said.
"I don't know what else they could do," he said, adding that inmates must have access to their attorneys. "They don't strip-search you."
Once inside, he said, attorneys are able to pass paperwork to their clients through a window in one section of the detention center. In another renovated section, he said, lawyers must hand paperwork over to a corrections officer, who walks it around to a prisoner.
David Irwin, a local defense attorney and former federal prosecutor, also said he hasn't been patted down before entering the county detention center. Attorneys pass through a metal detector and their briefcases are checked, he said.
"They have very good security from a safety standpoint," he said. But he added: "I don't think the focus was on contraband."
Erin Julius, a spokeswoman for the state corrections system, which oversees the city jail but not the county facility, said that "all staff from [the state corrections secretary] down, visitors and attorneys" are subject to the same search procedures upon trying to enter the city jail.
As a defense attorney, Swerdlin would have had access to her clients inside the detention center. Court records show she is the attorney in several active cases, including for assault and drug charges.
The drug conspiracy outlined in the indictment took place between May 3 and Sept. 11.
Police said they arrested a total of 13 people last week while executing 10 search warrants in the case. Police seized prescription pills including Oxycodone, Hydrocodone, Xanax, and Suboxone, as well as "various amounts" of heroin, cocaine, marijuana and other drug paraphernalia. They also seized 10 long guns, Armacost said. Police did not specify where the drugs and guns were taken from.
Police did not say if the four people arrested but not named in the indictment were charged with anything.
Armacost said Swerdlin allegedly supplied pills to "a few of her clients."
"While she prompted a larger investigation that is ongoing, there is no indication that she was part of any organized effort to pump drugs into the Baltimore County Detention Center," Armacost said.
Police did not identify any inmates who allegedly received pills from Swerdlin. Armacost also declined to describe the source of the tip about an attorney smuggling pills into the jail.