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City gun bounty pays a dividend

THE BALTIMORE SUN

The Baltimore Police Department's new $200 gun bounty has paid off - with a catch.

Acting on a tip to the Gun Stoppers hotline, which now pays for information leading to a gun seizure, officers found a .22-caliber rifle yesterday hidden in a trash bag on an East Baltimore street.

But the program's rules that guarantee callers anonymity are preventing police from filing firearm charges against the man they arrested about 9:30 a.m. in the 1700 block of E. 25th St.

An officer did not see him with the weapon, and the tipster, who claimed to see a man hiding the rifle, can remain anonymous and therefore cannot be called or named in a police report as a witness.

Misdemeanor charge

Without the caller's testimony linking the suspect to the gun, police could charge the man only with what they saw - he allegedly was smoking marijuana when they pulled up. That leaves them with a misdemeanor drug possession case that rarely results in jail time. Possession of an illegal firearm is a felony that carries a five-year prison sentence.

"We got the gun, we got an arrest," said Ragina C. Averella, the Police Department's chief spokeswoman, calling the program's first case a success. "The tip was good, and we got a gun off the street."

Defense lawyers have another concern - that the initiative gives police excuses to stop and search people without having to prove a tip is legitimate. They also said police should build cases that can be won in court and not just react to anonymous callers motivated by reward money.

Defense lawyers concerns

"Police are told to make arrests," said criminal defense attorney Jack B. Rubin. "They don't worry about whether they can make a conviction. They just want to get the guns. They should be using police techniques that conform to the Constitution."

The program, announced Monday with great fanfare, is funded with a $79,000 state grant. Advertisements include posters of Commissioner Edward T. Norris pointing to a gun, over a slogan that says: "Make Your Day."

The man arrested yesterday was identified as Michael Brown, 23, of the 3800 block of Boarman Ave. in Northwest Baltimore. He was charged with one count of drug possession and was awaiting a bail hearing yesterday at the Central Booking and Intake Center.

Police maintain that the program will work only if people can call without worrying about retaliation. An operator gives callers codes so they can collect their reward money without revealing their names.

Norris has promised to work within the law. Supervisors are instructing officers about a Supreme Court ruling from March that concluded an anonymous tip that a person is carrying a gun, "without more information of criminal activity," is not sufficient for an officer to search the suspect.

Rubin said any notion that officers will obey that ruling to the letter "is fiction," and he worried that many people would be searched based solely on unverifiable tips.

Similar to drug reports

Norris said information from the Gun Stoppers tip line is treated no differently from a standard 911 call, in which callers often report drug activity without revealing their identity.

And even though names are not recorded on the gun tip line, each caller is issued an informant number to prove that police acted on a real complaint.

"We still have to obey the laws and the Constitution," the commissioner said at Monday's news conference. "We get the call. Police will respond accordingly."

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