The NAACP and the American Civil Liberties Union sued the Baltimore Police Department and the state-run city jail yesterday, using the experiences of five men to allege a broad pattern of abuse in which they say thousands of people are routinely arrested and held for hours without being charged with a crime.
The lawsuit, filed in Baltimore Circuit Court by the Maryland ACLU, condemns the practice of jailing citizens for so-called quality-of-life crimes such as loitering - one of the central strategies employed by police here and in other cities in their efforts to drive down crime.
The issue emerged just over a year ago with reports in The Sun of overcrowding at the Central Booking and Intake Facility.
The plaintiffs, including a 19-year-old Morgan State engineering student and two Pennsylvania residents visiting Baltimore for a bachelor party, allege that city police officers routinely make arrests without probable cause and do so "under a pattern and practice set and enforced by city officials."
City Solicitor Ralph S. Tyler said the plaintiffs "will not be able to prove their truly wild allegations."
"The illegal arrests claim rests largely on a false equation," he said. "The fact that the state's attorney declines to charge in many cases does not suggest that the arrest was illegal."
Tyler said many factors play into a prosecutor's decision not to pursue charges. For example, a prosecutor might determine that the hours a person spent in Central Booking was an appropriate punishment for a minor crime - a situation called "abatement by arrest."
Unaudited figures provided by the city State's Attorney's Office for the first three months of this year show that about one-third of the 3,110 arrests that did not result in charges were because of abatement by arrest.
The other two-thirds were because prosecutors believed they could not prove beyond a reasonable doubt that a crime occurred.
The number of declined cases is about half what it was last year - a sign that police have become more selective in their arrests, perhaps responding to criticism voiced during a raucous community meeting in January.
David R. Rocah, an ACLU attorney, said an aim of the lawsuit, which he said has been in the works for almost a year, is to change police policy. Other defendants include the City Council, the mayor, state prison officials and individual police and correctional officers.
The lawsuit alleges "perverse incentives" for officers to arrest a large number of people, even if they have not committed crimes that will be prosecuted.
"Each patrol officer is required to tally his enforcement statistics, including citations and arrests," the lawsuit alleges.
"These numbers are then compared to averages from that officer's squad and shift. The three officers in each district with the lowest scores are subject to reassignment to other districts."
Paul M. Blair Jr., president of Baltimore's Fraternal Order of Police, said that in the past, "low-performers" were moved to other districts, but he said the command staff never made it clear whether performance was tied to arrest numbers.
He said that practice was abandoned more than a year ago, after a City Council meeting in which Police Commissioner Leonard D. Hamm assured the council there is no quota system.
But Blair said that during crime spikes, such as one last month, officers are told to flood neighborhoods and aggressively enforce quality-of-life crimes.
The suit also delves into three situations in which five named plaintiffs were arrested, detained for hours at Central Booking and then released without being charged with any crime.
Evan Howard, the Morgan State student, and his friend Tyrone Braxton, 19,were arrested April 15 of last year outside Howard's home on Poplar Grove Street in West Baltimore.
The men were told they were being arrested for loitering. They were taken to Central Booking, strip-searched and held there, Braxton for 36 hours and Howard for 54, the lawsuit states.
Donald Wilson, 21, was arrested April 10 on the front steps of a the Barclay home of his girlfriend and toddler. A crowd gathered when an unmarked police car raced past chasing a dirt bike, the lawsuit states.
Officers turned their attention toward the crowd when they did not catch the cyclist. One officer "threatened" Wilson after Wilson "firmly" responded to a question, the lawsuit states.
Wilson was arrested and held at Central Booking for about five hours before being released without charges.
A soon-to-be groom and six friends were celebrating his coming wedding near the Inner Harbor in May 2005. As they walked from the Power Plant Live entertainment area back to their hotel, a marked police car approached.
Officers told the group to keep walking.
"All of a sudden I see the cop hit my one buddy in the chest with a nightstick and he grabbed my other buddy and threw him up against the wall," said Robert Lowery, 27.
He and the groom, Aaron Stoner, 27, of Chambersburg, Pa., were arrested and taken to Central Booking for "failure to obey" an order to stop loitering, the officers told them.
They were strip-searched and held for about 17 hours. Neither was prosecuted.
Lowery, of Greencastle, Pa., said he had never had any trouble with the law and the experience soured his view of the city.
"Before, I enjoyed coming down to the Inner Harbor and hanging out for the day and walking around," he said. "Now I don't want to come back down."
The lawsuit also levels criticism at Central Booking, citing "filthy" conditions and "humiliating" strip-searches.
Mark A. Vernarelli, a spokesman for the state Department of Public Safety and Correctional Services, declined to comment on the suit because he had not seen it. But he said numerous improvements were announced last summer to speed the booking process.
Rocah said the named plaintiffs are "among the many" who have contacted the ACLU reporting similar incidents. He said the lawsuit seeks monetary damages - the amount is not specified - for the five named plaintiffs.
Baltimore attorney James Rhodes, who said he represents hundreds of people who have complained about "frivolous arrests," said he doubted any change would result from the ACLU's lawsuit.
"They seem to want to get police to agree to stop making arrests when a citation could be issued," he said. "There is no way you will get an outright agreement like that because it takes away police power."
The ACLU and NAACP also released yesterday an action plan that proposes ways the police can resolve these issues.
Suggestions include creating incentives for officers for arrests that are successfully prosecuted, forcing officers to stop arresting people whom prosecutors won't charge, expunging arrest records when charges are not pursued and delaying strip and cavity searches of suspects until it can be determined whether charges will be filed.
Rocah said the lawsuit is long overdue on an issue that has undermined police relationships with city residents for years.
Sun reporter Gus G. Sentementes contributed to this article.