When Brenda Brown stood before a judge, she figured she had only one real option: plead guilty. She had been caught with three bags of marijuana in her pocket in Northwest Baltimore.
She didn't know that Kendell Richburg, the arresting officer, had lied about having seen her buy the drugs, potentially violating her constitutional right against unreasonable search and seizure. Now, her case is among hundreds under review by prosecutors in light of Richburg's conduct.
Brown, 52, is serving a sentence that includes a year of probation, court costs, counseling, drug testing and another possession count on a lengthy rap sheet. But she wonders whether the new revelations mean her conviction might be scrapped.
"You mean I'm off probation?" she asked after hearing of Richburg's guilty plea this month to armed drug trafficking charges. Federal prosecutors said the Baltimore police officer set up innocent people, falsified reports, skimmed police money, and protected a drug dealer working for him as an informant.
Brown's case — and others like it — are part of a complicated puzzle prosecutors will have to solve in coming weeks.
"This could be a very big undertaking the state's attorney's office will have to embark on," said Glenn F. Ivey, a private attorney who served as Prince George's County state's attorney for eight years. He said one police officer's misconduct can ruin many cases.
The Richburg affair has endangered cases against people caught engaging in criminal activity. And it illustrates how seemingly incidental, but fabricated, information can slip through the court system, limiting suspects' due process.
"Whether the person is guilty or not, the police have to put truthful information in the report about him or her," U.S. Attorney Rod J. Rosenstein said. "You don't make cases by lying."
Brown was arrested Sept. 18. That night, she said in an interview, a young man on a bike rode up to her at a bus stop in the 5100 block of Park Heights Ave.
"Hey mama, I got some weed but you got to look out," Brown said he told her. "Some knockers down there."
He pointed toward an area being monitored by plainclothes officers from Baltimore's Violent Crime Impact Section. Brown discreetly handed the man $15 for three "nickel" bags — enough to roll a joint, she said — and boarded a bus.
Several minutes later, she said, a police car pulled in front of the bus. Richburg stepped onboard and pulled Brown off.
"What you got?" she said he asked. "I know you have something."
He reached into her pocket, pulled out the baggies. She never questioned how he knew she was holding marijuana.
In the statement of probable cause for the arrest, Richburg wrote that he witnessed the buy. He said an "unidentified black male" in a white T-shirt and blue jeans approach Brown at the bus stop. Money changed hands, he said. "This detective believed that he had just witnessed a narcotic transaction," he wrote. He and his partner walked up and made the arrest.
There was no mention in the report of Richburg stopping the bus.
That wasn't the only omission. According to federal prosecutors, the entire arrest was set up. Earlier in the day, federal investigators, who by this time were monitoring Richburg, had been wiretapping his conversations with a confidential informant.
According to Richburg's lawyer, Warren A. Brown, the officer had been under immense pressure to make cases, which led him to arrange busts with the informant. That day, the two discussed the potential drug arrest.
"I'll write it up like I saw hand to hand," bits of the conversation made public by federal prosecutors show.
It was unclear whether the man on the bike was the informant. But after the drug deal was brokered, the informant gave Brenda Brown's description and location to Richburg, who texted back several minutes later: "I got her."
Richburg's attorney said the officer felt he had to resort to such tactics to keep his job.
"This unit, which was ostensibly meant to combat violent crime, was under extreme pressure to make arrests," Warren Brown said. "It was a numbers game and the higher ups didn't care what kind of arrests they were — they just wanted numbers."
Baltimore police spokesman Anthony Guglielmi called any claim of top-down pressure to make arrests "absurd" and denigrating to honest police officers. "It was clear he was operating alone."
Richburg was involved in hundreds of cases since April 2009, when he forged the relationship with the informant that would play a key role in his downfall. The street-level dealer, who has not been identified, was facing arrest when he agreed to help police.
He worked the streets for tips in the same area he had been caught dealing drugs and was assigned to Richburg, who was part of Baltimore police's Northwestern District's special enforcement section.
The relationship developed into a quid pro quo, authorities say: Richburg tipped off the informant about areas police were monitoring so he could avoid them when he sold cocaine, crack, heroin and marijuana. The informant told the officer who his customers were so Richburg could arrest them.
Richburg never revealed that the informant was the dealer in many of his arrests. He even fueled the informant's illegal enterprises, prosecutors said, paying him for tips with police money — which Richburg skimmed — and resupplying him with drugs police had confiscated.
The state's attorney's Police Integrity Unit began reviewing Richburg's cases weeks ago after they learned of the allegations against him. Officials have been consulting with every prosecutor who worked on a Richburg case to determine whether convictions or plea agreements need to be thrown out, spokesman Mark Cheshire said. Prosecutors are obligated to notify people who could be potentially freed or exonerated if they uncover evidence that might be favorable to them.
The office of the public defender is conducting its own review. "We're looking into all of these cases, and we'll be pursuing it quite aggressively," District Public Defender Elizabeth L. Julian said.
In the case of Brenda Brown, Byron L. Warnken, a University of Baltimore law professor and attorney who specializes in appellate cases, said that if it turns out Richburg had no probable cause to search her, it won't matter whether she had marijuana. "If the only thing that establishes that she did the crime was his statement and he lied, sounds like she didn't do the crime," he said.
Brown, who is unemployed and on disability, said she grew up in West Baltimore and got caught up in doing and dealing hard drugs at a young age.
Since 1984, she has been arrested 16 times, according to records read at her Sept. 27 court hearing. Court records show several convictions over the years, including multiple charges of possession of a controlled substance and theft.
She said she has been "clean from the coke and the dope" for 13 years, since serving a seven-year sentence that ended in 2004. But she acknowledged continuing to smoke marijuana to help combat pain from surgeries and arthritis, and fatigue from HIV, which she has been fighting for 15 years. "I do it for me to get an appetite."
For months, Brown thought it was just bad luck she had been prosecuted for buying marijuana last September. Usually, officers in special enforcement units focus on drug dealers, not users, she said.
"Most of the knockers, when they find [drugs] they just smash it and tell you to go on your way," she said.
Before she bought the marijuana, she had been out buying a pair of glasses. She joked that the glasses "must not have been that good" since she didn't notice police around witnessing her buy drugs. Now, she said, she knows they never saw anything at all.