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Police powers for Baltimore prosecutor's office could help street drug enforcement, legislative panel is told

Giving police powers to investigators from the Baltimore State's Attorney's Office could help with everyday drug enforcement, supporters of the bill told a legislative committee Tuesday night.

"Do you know what 'testers day' is?" Sen. Joan Carter Conway, a Baltimore Democrat speaking in support of the bill, asked members of the Senate Judicial Proceedings committee. The question referred to the day drug dealers offer samples of new product.

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"When they throw testers out, you may have 300 people out in the street. If the police are not available, you can send somebody else to get them. You don't just need the Baltimore City police, or wait on the Sheriff's Department."

Al Marcus, a retired Baltimore Police homicide detective who works as an investigator for the Baltimore State's Attorney's Office, said he recently saw brazen drug dealing in West Baltimore, but couldn't take action.

"If I had arrest powers, I would've locked up the dealer," Marcus said. "Things are starting to shatter in Baltimore City. We're just an added, extra dimension to arrest criminals and take them off the street."

Baltimore State's Attorney Marilyn J. Mosby is pushing for the increased powers for her office, and has previously cited the need for her office to have independent investigators in light of conflicts that arose during the investigation into the 2015 death of Freddie Gray.

The office's director of legislative affairs and policy, Lisa Smith, told the senators that three other rural prosecutors' offices in Maryland — Talbot, Dorchester, and Garrett County — have such powers. A spokeswoman for the office said Wednesday that prosecutors' offices in Atlanta, San Francisco, Los Angeles and Manhattan also have investigators with police powers.

Smith told the committee their primary function would be to write search and seizure warrants, serve arrest warrants, and obtain writs to collect people from jail.

"It's really in the interest of time in many of these cases," Smith said.

Some legislators expressed concern that the increased authority would raise concerns about separation of powers.

"To me, this sort of smacks of a Praetorian Guard," said Sen. Robert G. Cassilly, a Harford County Republican, referring to elite Roman troops that gained political power, often appointing emperors or murdering opponents. "God, doesn't that scare you?"

Sen. Michael J. Hough, a Republican who represents Carroll County, said legislators there quashed a similar bill being sought by Carroll prosecutors.

"There's separation of powers, and that helps prevent abuse of power. To me, we're eroding that by giving more powers to one agency, and that could lead to more potential abuse," Hough said.

But Sen. C. Anthony Muse, a Prince George's County Democrat, said that if three other jurisdictions in the state have such expanded powers, Baltimore should be allowed to as well, or none should have them.

The Baltimore State's Attorney's Office has 11 investigators, most of whom are retired police officers. The bill would also allow them to carry firearms while on the job. Supporters said they would have to meet the standards of the Maryland Police Training Commission.

Sen. Bobby Zirkin, chairman of the Judicial Proceedings Committee, said the bill raised a number of questions, such as what would happen if citizens made complaints against the office's investigators as they carry out police powers.

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"This bill clearly has an 11-person police force that doesn't seem to be accountable to anybody except for the State's Attorney of Baltimore City," Zirkin said.

Marcus said: "Your point is well taken. When I worked drugs in the Northwest District, if I locked up 10 drug dealers, eight of them made a complaint on me whether it was justified or not."

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