The State of Maryland v. Walter Grant commenced on time and on schedule at 8:30 a.m. Oct. 28 in Room 3 of the District Courthouse on East North Avenue. Grant faced charges of taking a blue Honda Civic with keys stolen during a burglary of a home in Carney in August.
The judge was there. The prosecutor was there. The defense attorney was there. Walter Grant was there. Honda owner Matthew Crouch was there.
The only person not there was Officer Ronald J. Wilson Jr., a member of an auto theft task force who had found the missing car in September and had arrested Grant in East Baltimore.
No officer, no case.
Prosecutors dropped the unauthorized-use charge against the 61-year-old suspect, a three-time convicted drug felon, and sent him home, leaving Crouch and his wife feeling scared and betrayed.
Marianne Crouch has worked for the city for 30 years, most recently as a fiscal supervisor in the wastewater division of the Department of Public Works, and now, she wrote me in an e-mail, she and her husband "no longer feel safe in the metropolitan Baltimore area since we know that we cannot rely on the officers who are paid to protect us."
But this one wasn't Officer Wilson's fault.
A series of blunders, bureaucratic tunnel vision and lack of common sense conspired to keep Wilson far from the witness stand. At 8:30 a.m., as the trial commenced, he was in his eighth-floor office on East Joppa Road at the Towson police headquarters where his unit is based, ready and available but unaware that he was needed to testify.
Putting a court summons in the hands of a police officer would seem like an easy task. Yet after years of top-level meetings to streamline and update an antiquated system, considering everything from e-mail notifications to automated phone calls, hundreds of officers in Baltimore each month miss court dates, forcing prosecutors to drop hundreds of cases.
To explain how Wilson missed his court date (and I warn you, the explanation will be excruciating) we have to begin at the beginning, the night of Aug. 18, when the Crouches went to bed and left a door to their home unlocked. Someone broke in, took Marianne Crouch's purse and used her keys to steal their Honda Civic.
At 4:33 p.m. Sept. 22, Wilson checked the plate number of a blue Honda Civic parked with its motor running in front of a house on East Federal Street. It had been reported stolen, and the officer arrested the man in the driver's seat, Walter Grant.
Wilson filled out a charging document. On that form, the Baltimore officer listed the correct address and number of his unit, the Regional Auto Theft Task Force in Towson.
On the bottom of that form, it reads, in bold, "I have been informed that the trial date is 10/28/2009 at 8:30 a.m. in Room 3, at 1400 E. North Avenue."
Wilson also filled out a "Request for Witness Summons" form in which he again listed his unit's location and phone number on East Joppa Road, as well as the Crouches' home address and phone number. That paperwork went to the District Court clerk's office and into a file.
But Lonnie Ferguson, administrative clerk of Baltimore District Court, told me that officials there don't use the Request for Witness Summons form; instead, they rely on officers' "sequence numbers" and ID numbers. A city police spokesman typed in the one listed on Wilson's paperwork and it came back "VCID District, eastern statewide."
For city purposes, the auto theft team, made up of police from various agencies, falls under Baltimore's Violent Crime Impact Division, which helps keep city records straight on paper but has nothing to do with where Wilson actually works. But because a clerk used the ID number, Wilson's summons was sent to the city's Eastern District station on Edison Highway.
What happened to it there is anyone's guess, but police tell me it never reached Wilson at the Baltimore County police station in Towson.
It's perplexing why clerks searching for an officer use a badge number instead of the form the officer had filled out with his location and phone number.
Ferguson said that's just the way it's done, and if there's something wrong with it, "that's something for the police to work out, not us. If they want it to go to another address, they need to write down another code."
The trouble is, those sequence and ID numbers are akin to a police officer's Social Security number; they don't change when jobs change.
"You can't fault the policeman," said city police spokesman Anthony Guglielmi.
But wait, it gets worse.
The day of the trial, the prosecutor had a police liaison, whose job it is to make sure that officers are present to testify, try to reach Wilson. The prosecutor even persuaded the judge to move the case to the afternoon docket. The liaison pulled up the Matrix, a database designed several years ago to prevent just such problems. It is supposed to be a comprehensive list of police officers, their work, cell and home numbers and addresses, along with assignments, vacation days, leave time and shifts.
The liaison called Wilson at home but got a message saying the line was disconnected.
Two other numbers were listed on the Matrix for Wilson - a private cell phone and a departmental cell. On a court document indicating why the case was dropped, the prosecutor noted that the liaison left a message three times on another number, but it does not specify which number and a spokeswoman said the liaison couldn't recall which one he dialed.
Police told me that the departmental cell phone in the Matrix is indeed Wilson's and that he had his phone with him that day at work but didn't get a call from the court.
Margaret T. Burns, a spokeswoman for the city prosecutor's office, said the Matrix is supposed to "have the most accurate information" and is what officials decided to use after dozens of meetings since 2002 to fix the problems of officers not showing up for trials.
Even so, Burns said, Wilson bears some blame.
"He was the one who filed the charges," she said. "He received a copy of his paperwork. On the paperwork is the date of the court appearance where he failed to appear."
Questions regarding Wilson were referred to his boss, Lt. Glen Wiedeck, who said officers do not rely on the date printed on the charging document because it typically changes, sometimes four or five times.
"When we get a court summons is when we respond," he said.
Wiedeck added, "From my point of view, I don't see anything the officer did wrong."
Bureaucracy is a beautiful thing: Everybody says they didn't do anything wrong, and everybody admits everything went wrong. And a suspect goes free.