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Retiring managing district commissioner trades court dates for golf dates


Managing District Court Commissioner Salvatore N. Butta has retired from the front lines of Baltimore County's criminal justice system after 26 years, leaving murder and mayhem to chase punk pigeons from his backyard bird feeder.

At 5 feet 4 inches -- some liken him to actor Danny DeVito -- Mr. Butta has plenty of tales to tell, including the time he confronted an angry juvenile almost a foot taller.

"He was young -- from the old Maryland Training School. There were no police and we didn't have a cage -- just a room with a metal door. I heard this 'Boom, boom,' and I saw the door going out and in."

Mr. Butta pushed a chair toward the door, hoping the young prisoner would trip over it if he got out. "But when the door broke open, he didn't run. He stands there, and now he's got the chair to use against me. But he only said, 'I just didn't like being in there. I'm not going anywhere' -- then he sat down on the chair."

Another defendant wasn't locked in the room because he had casts on both feet and crutches -- not much of a risk, it appeared. But he cut the bottoms off the casts and bolted without his crutches. He was caught nearby, hiding under a car.

"We're the first line," Mr. Butta said. "It's the most thankless job in the system: You have the right to put people in jail, issue warrants. We put more people in jail than the prosecutors."

He was appointed to his job in 1969, in the old magistrate system, and stayed on as a commissioner when the Maryland District Court system was created in 1971. The facilities are decidedly improved; he closed out his career in a new District Court building in Towson.

"And the caseload quadrupled. Seven days a week, 24 hours a day: We never close," Mr. Butta said recently at his home in Rosedale, smiling and tanned from almost daily golf dates.

The county's 23 court commissioners see virtually all accused criminals within 24 hours after charges are filed. They also must sort out whether warrants or summonses should be issued in the myriad private disputes that bring angry or distraught people to their offices at all hours.

"They see people at their absolutely most worst: They see them when they're frightened; they see them when they're angry; they see them bewildered," said Robert F. Sweeney, chief judge of the Maryland District Court system since its beginning. "They see people who have never been arrested, and people who have been arrested 100 times."

When a private citizen wants to swear out a complaint, Mr. Butta said, the commissioner must determine whether it's a crime or a civil dispute. If there is probable cause for criminal charges, the commissioner decides whether to issue an arrest warrant or a summons. A bail hearing follows if there is an arrest. "So that's a lot of responsibility," he said. "We handle everything from minor disorderly conduct to murder and rape."

Mr. Butta, 61, said he has seen a huge increase in drug-related offenses, but a decrease in drunken driving. "It always seems that it drops, once they set their mind to reducing a certain crime," he said.

While complaints of domestic violence and child abuse also have increased, he said he doesn't think these occur more often -- only that there's a new name for what used to be assault and battery.

"Domestic violence is the toughest out of all of them. The commissioners don't know what to do. . . . They [the women] don't want their husbands arrested. They say, 'I just want him to stop beating me, but don't arrest him. He's got to go to work tomorrow.' What do you do?

"Some guys bring their wives in to drop the charges -- or they bring in their girlfriends, and say they're their wives, to drop the charges."

A native of Baltimore's Highlandtown section, Mr. Butta got into his career through his activities in Democratic circles.

In the early years, he wasn't authorized to evaluate complaints, Mr. Butta said, and he sometimes had to issue arrest warrants for the wrong person. "A lady came in with a little bruise and said, 'My husband beat me up.' We issued a warrant with $500 bail, and come to find out she had beat the hell out of him -- and he was in the hospital. She had beat him with her high heel," he said. "But I couldn't recall the warrant.

"It wasn't fair to the public when whoever got to a magistrate first could swear out an arrest warrant for the other person," he said. "People accused each other of all kinds of crazy things, and we didn't have affidavits like we have now." The requirement for sworn statements greatly reduced the number of people making false charges, he said.

Judge Sweeney's court system has more than 200 commissioners around the state, who in a year see about 150,000 people under arrest and another 65,000 who want somebody else arrested.

Mr. Butta chose to retire, effective June 1, joining his wife, Gloria, who retired in 1993 as chief of the civil department in the Baltimore County Circuit Court clerk's office.

The managing commissioner's position was too administrative, he said, "more of a clerk than a commissioner, with inventory and recordkeeping." It also was becoming too centralized for his tastes.

rTC "It's a less personal experience, and I don't know that that's a bad thing," Judge Sweeney said. "The District Court came into being because of preferential justice. A lot of the magistrate courts were scandal-ridden, politically controlled -- not all, but it was commonplace. There weren't very many people in Maryland in public life who couldn't fix a ticket under the old system."

Michael P. Vach, a commissioner for 22 years, succeeds Mr. Butta as managing commissioner. "Sal's all right -- a guy from the old school, and he knows how to get things done," Mr. Vach said. "He knows everybody, yet Sal always had time for #i everybody.

"It's like a carnival here. People are really something, and Sal could always make them feel comfortable. He always stressed 'Just be nice' -- and it works."

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