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Arrests without charges linger

The Baltimore Sun

More than 21,000 people were arrested in Maryland last year and later released without charges, most of them in Baltimore. After they were freed, though, the records of their arrests lived on - photographs, fingerprints, reports and more, tucked away in police files and able to keep innocent people from getting jobs, mortgages, financial aid and professional licenses.

That's what happened to Melvin Baker, a West Baltimore man who says he was arrested three times in one week last year but never charged with a crime.

City police, who were sweeping his neighborhood looking for minor offenses such as loitering and open container violations, took him to Central Booking, fingerprinted him and then let him go.

"They call it a walk-through. They arrest you, have you sit for a few hours and cut you loose," said Baker, 27, who is trained as a forklift operator. "Now I don't get no jobs. The job I'm working now is through a temp agency, but as far as getting hired on my own, it won't work."

But momentum in the General Assembly is building behind a bill to automatically wipe out those arrest records, a measure proponents say could undo a fundamental injustice for thousands of people.

"It is an intrinsic wrong," said Del. Keith E. Haynes, a Baltimore Democrat, who is sponsoring the legislation. "The people who are getting caught up in this practice are average citizens. ... You've been through this, you did nothing wrong, and it prevents you from doing the kinds of things you want for a job, a mortgage, financial aid."

Arrests without charges have been a point of contention in Baltimore for years as the Police Department has aggressively cracked down on quality-of-life violations, such as loitering and public disturbances, in an effort to eliminate the conditions in which more serious crimes flourish.

Though some in the community applauded the efforts and demanded more enforcement, others called the practice a violation of civil liberties. The issue became a central focus of the governor's race last fall, when then-Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. and his allies accused then-Mayor Martin O'Malley of encouraging the unwarranted arrests of thousands of city residents, primarily African-Americans.

The American Civil Liberties Union and the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People have sued the city over the practice, and the Police Department has tightened its procedures in the past year in an effort to cut down on the number of arrests without charges.

Many of those involved in the criminal justice system have united behind the expungement effort, saying it is the state's duty to clear the names of those who are arrested but not charged.

"To me, it's a matter of justice," said Baltimore City State's Attorney Patricia C. Jessamy, who supports the bill. "These are individuals whose arrests brought no official charges. There are numerous impediments these citizens face every single day when it comes to getting jobs, getting housing, getting student loans. If you are in school, an arrest can really impede progress."

The bill passed the House of Delegates last week with bipartisan support, 130-9. It next goes to the Senate, where key lawmakers say it has a strong chance of passage. An O'Malley spokesman said the governor supports the bill. Mayor Sheila Dixon and Baltimore Police Chief Leonard D. Hamm also back the effort.

Although the bill would have a statewide effect, it is mostly focused on Baltimore. According to statistics from Jessamy's office, over 16,000 of the more than 21,000 arrests without charges statewide last year were in the city.

The Rev. Charles Neal, the minister of Dayspring Worship Center just outside the city on Reisterstown Road, founded Clergy for Justice last year to help the scores of people he heard from who were arrested but never charged.

Neal said he became active in the issue after he was arrested while on the way to a fellow pastor's service on a Sunday afternoon in May. He said he was pulled over because his car didn't have a front license plate, and he wound up spending about 17 hours in Central Booking. Neal, 45, said incidents such as his generated deep mistrust in the community.

"I was in a cell with about six other guys," Neal said. "There was no place to lay my head. I was lying completely on the floor. It was terrible. The living arrangements in that place are just not fit for an animal."

In 2005, Hamm ordered new training and heightened supervision for officers to improve the charging documents they filed. According to statistics from the state, the number of people who were released without charges went from about a third of arrests in 2005 to about a quarter in 2006.

"The Police Department recognizes that we need to make continual improvements in this area, and we will work with our prosecutors to do so," said Jim Green, the director of special projects for the department. "We're making strides, and we need to be in sync with our prosecutors as to any trends or anything they see that can help us improve."

But there is a limit to how much the Police Department can do on its own to reduce the problem. In the city, unlike in other jurisdictions, an official from the state's attorney's office reviews all cases before they go to a court commissioner. That means charges are filed in Baltimore only if a prosecutor thinks a case would stand up in court, a level of review that doesn't exist in any other jurisdiction in the state.

Furthermore, Jessamy's office routinely declines to file charges in many quality-of-life crimes in which prosecutors judge the alleged offense was "abated by arrest," regardless of how much proof police amass.

According to Jessamy's office, prosecutors didn't file charges in about 4,000 cases of open container law violations and 2,300 cases of disorderly conduct they judged to be abated by arrest in 2006. In 2,500 incidents of loitering and 3,400 minor drug cases, the state's attorney's office concluded that the information the Police Department provided was insufficient for prosecution, the statistics show.

House Minority Leader Anthony J. O'Donnell, one of a handful of delegates to vote against the bill, said leaders should focus on changing the "wrongheaded" policies in Baltimore that have led to the widespread arrests without charges there rather than enacting a statewide expungement law.

"This type of bill, in my opinion, at best masks the root cause of the problem and at worst facilitates it," the Southern Maryland Republican said.

But O'Donnell added that he sees the merit of the idea for those who have been arrested: "There is a group of people ... wronged here, and there's no doubt about that."

Hassan Giordano, 31, said that he was hanging out with friends in July in the parking lot of I Can't, We Can, a Baltimore substance abuse treatment center he had attended. A police car drove by, and an officer told them that they couldn't be there, he said.

A minute later, the police returned and arrested Giordano and a friend. They spent several hours in Central Booking and were let go without charges. Giordano said that he has been arrested before but that had turned his life around. He said he hopes last year's arrest won't erase the progress he had made.

"I don't want that lingering on my record, something so trivial," Giordano said.

The police, he said, "wasted my time and everything else, and now there's something down on my record that could hurt me."

Representatives of social services groups in the city say the harm done by these arrest records has become more dire. As the prevalence of arrests without charges has grown in recent years, so has the number of employers that require criminal background checks for job applicants, said Melissa Chalmers Broome, a senior policy advocate of the Baltimore-based Job Opportunities Task Force. And those checks often turn up arrests, even if no charges resulted.

"Any time an employer sees a blemish on a criminal background report, they're turned off by it," Broome said. "The employer can't look at a background report and see it means the person was never charged with a crime. They just see it as an incident, and what is happening is people are being prevented from getting jobs."

Natalie Finegar, a Baltimore public defender who until recently was assigned to Central Booking, said she routinely received calls from worried applicants for jobs with the state police, the corrections system and the city school district. The records were so confusing that without an expungement, she said, they actually looked worse than they would have if the people had been charged and found not guilty.

"It showed there was an arrest and would say 'No disposition received,' or look like a pending case," Finegar said. "Not only did it show an arrest, which would have been bad enough, but it showed an arrest and we didn't know what happened."

Nicholas Panteleakis, a Baltimore public defender, was arrested last month after arguing with police about their response to a fight he witnessed on a city street. He was released without charges, but he said that if he ever needs to apply to the bar in another state, the arrest will show up as a black mark on his character.

"If it's not expunged, there will always be the fact I was arrested on my record," he said. "It could have an impact."

Panteleakis has a lawyer who is pursuing an expungement, but he said most people don't have the resources or know-how to navigate the system.

People who are released without charges have to send requests for expungement to any law enforcement agency they think might have records of the incident. They must either attach a legal waiver of the right to sue for damages stemming from the arrest or wait three years, the statute of limitations for such claims.

Upon receiving a request, the law enforcement agency has to investigate the matter. If it determines a person's claims are true, it has 60 days to locate all of its records and to inform other agencies that might have records. If the agency disputes the claim, the arrested person can appeal to the District Court and pay a fee for reconsideration.

Dave Wolinski, who handles expungements for the state Department of Public Safety and Correctional Services, said people who are released without charges rarely go through that process. His office handled about 20,000 requests for expungements last year, but the vast majority of them were for people who were charged but found not guilty at a trial or given probation before judgment. In contrast to people picked up but not charged, these cases often involve testimony in open court.

"Clearly there's a need in Baltimore City for this legislation," said Del. Curtis S. Anderson, the chairman of the city's delegation in the House of Delegates. He said he supports the expungement bill because the current process is too cumbersome: "Why saddle people with that extra burden?"

In addition to making that process automatic, the proposed legislation would eliminate the requirement that the arrested person waive the right to sue. James Rhodes, a Baltimore attorney who represents people who have been arrested but not charged, said the current law presents them with an impossible choice.

"You can sue the Police Department and forgo most of the chances you have of getting a decent job or housing for the next three-year period before you can get an expungement, or you give up your right to seek redress of your wrong so you can maintain a place to live and work," Rhodes said.

The bill now goes to the Senate, where both Sen. Brian E. Frosh, the chairman of the committee that will handle the measure, and Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller said they are receptive to the idea.

"If you are not charged with an offense, it shouldn't be held against you," Miller said.

Local officials and legislative analysts cautioned that the bill could create a difficult administrative burden. Arrest records can wind up filed in a variety of different departments and agencies, making expungements difficult. And Wolinski said the bill would probably double the number of expungements his office has to handle each year.

"I'm a little concerned with how we would deal with that kind of increase," he said.

Del. Steven J. DeBoy Sr., a Baltimore County Democrat who is a former police officer, voted against the bill, asserting that it could make it more difficult for police to do their jobs.

"If police get to a location and do a sweep where they arrest a number of people, part of the information they obtain couldn't be used in a future investigation" if the records are expunged, DeBoy said. "From a law enforcement standpoint, I think police wouldn't be able to build probable cause."

But Haynes, the House bill's sponsor, said the injustice done to individuals by the system demands a response. He said he gets dozens of calls from constituents who discover that arrests they thought were in their pasts can hurt them for years to come.

"They think, 'Because there was no charge, I have no record,' and it doesn't come up when they apply for something, but it does," Haynes said. "You really can have a person's future in the balance."

andy.green@baltsun.com

Sun reporter Jennifer Skalka contributed to this article.

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