Prosecutors dropped dozens of drug charges yesterday from the Maryland State Police raid of seedy bars on The Block because the cases were tainted by improperly obtained evidence and sexual misconduct claims against undercover troopers.
It took the state police four months and more than $360,000 to investigate and raid the nude dance clubs. It took prosecutors in a crowded Baltimore courtroom about an hour to dismiss half of the 74 cases set for hearings yesterday.
Prosecutors dropped nearly every drug possession case troopers developed during the highly publicized January raid.
They also dropped more than a fourth of the felony distribution cases stemming from the investigation -- including 10 cases handled by two troopers facing an internal investigation over claims that they had liaisons with women in the bars.
Former suspects said they were furious that police had arrested them in the first place. "I wasn't vindicated. I was abused," barmaid Joanne Dunay said after the hearing. "It was false arrest," Michelle Rollins said.
"Am I disappointed? Yes," said state police Superintendent Larry W. Tolliver. "I'm happy to say that most of these cases were misdemeanors. We have felonies that we are pursuing."
The charges stemmed from a state police investigation launched in September. Undercover officers infiltrated two dozen nude dance clubs on The Block. On Jan. 14, nearly 500 troopers stormed the clubs, carting off dozens of suspects.
The Baltimore state's attorney's office dropped the cases yesterday for a variety of reasons: sexual misconduct claims against the troopers, searches without specific warrants and the inability to prove many of the charges in court.
Prosecutors said they want to concentrate on cases they can win.
"We intend to vigorously prosecute the remaining cases," said Assistant State's Attorney A. David Copperthite.
37 of 74 cases dropped
Prosecutors dropped 37 of the 74 cases that came to Eastside District Court yesterday. Of the 27 misdemeanor drug possession cases, they dismissed 24. Of the 47 felony distribution charges, they dropped 13. Most suspects facing felony distribution cases found out yesterday that they had been indicted and their cases transferred to Circuit Court. Those cases joined four others -- one pending and three having resulted in guilty pleas. Two other distribution cases are pending in Virginia.
Many suspects -- dancers, barmaids and doormen -- had been arrested after the troopers searched them and discovered small amounts of drugs in their pockets and purses. They were charged with drug possession, a misdemeanor.
But the search warrants specified that the troopers could search the clubs, not individuals inside the bars, according to affidavits.
Because of the small amounts of drugs and the way troopers seized them, prosecutors said, they would have had a hard time winning convictions. They explained their decision to drop many of the possession cases in a letter Wednesday to the state police: "The remaining cases will not be prosecuted because of insufficient evidence to establish a conviction beyond a reasonable doubt and prevailing case law regarding the seizure of contraband."
Mika Keefer was one of those facing possession charges. She was dancing at Chez Joey the night of the raid. Police said they arrested her after finding baggies containing suspected cocaine residue in a pair of her socks. "They found my socks not guilty," Ms. Keefer, 21, said after the hearing yesterday.
Ms. Dunay was tending bar at the Mousetrap the night of the raid.
She said state troopers searched her purse without a warrant and charged her with possessing Zanax, a prescription drug. pTC Instead, she said, she had a tablet of Unisom, an over-the-counter sleeping pill. "That's it," said Ms. Dunay, 51. "I don't think this is justice."
Defense lawyers said troopers shouldn't have searched anyone without a warrant. "It was illegal for them to arrest and search people who were solely patrons or employees not involved in any criminal activity," said attorney Mitchel Gordon, a former Baltimore police narcotics officer.
Prosecutors also dismissed more than a quarter of the more serious distribution cases. Those cases, developed during the police investigation, involved hand-to-hand drug buys between undercover officers and suspects.
Ten of those cases involved the two troopers who are now under investigation by their own department.
Sgt. Warren Rineker spent the night in a hotel with a female bartender who is married to the owner of a Block bar, witnesses say.
Trooper Gary Manos tipped a dancer $100 in one of the bars to have sex with his friend -- a trooper assigned to the investigation -- witnesses say.
In the letter to state police, prosecutors cited "still pending and unresolved public allegations against certain investigators" as the reason for dropping the distribution cases developed by Sergeant Rineker and Trooper Manos.
Defense attorneys said the troopers' troubles became their clients' blessing.
"A juror would weigh that very heavily," said attorney David Weinstein. "You have a police officer who is cloaked with all kinds of authority from the state and believability because of his position."
Few former drug suspects were complaining.
"I'm glad," said Danny Watz, who was accused of selling cocaine to Sergeant Rineker and, because of previous convictions, was looking at a long sentence. Prosecutors dropped his case. "I was looking at spending the rest of my life in prison."
Some said they wished Sergeant Rineker or Trooper Manos were the only ones who had made arrests.
Charles Mitchell was a doorman at the Harem. Even though Sergeant Rineker and Trooper Manos were involved in his case, another undercover trooper said he also bought drugs from Mr. Mitchell.
Prosecutors didn't drop Mr. Mitchell's case.