Wednesday, July 9, 2008

The Sun's article on expungement

"The past is never dead. It's not even past."   ---William Faulkner
Buz read with interest the Sun's story on expungement, and the mention of it by mjb on Baltimore crime blog. Some semi-idiotic ramblings:
  • For many years in Bmore, when you got arrested on a minor charge, you were held in the police station lockup overnight, and your trial was held the next morning. To be honest, there weren't a heck of a lot of arrests for "humbles", unless that person needed to be arrested and police authority needed to be asserted. In any case, you got your day in court the next morning, and, yes, the Assistant State's Attorney nolle-prossed or stetted plenty of cases. And the judge gave PBJ to plenty of people. The person at least spent overnight in the lockup. I often approached the job with a sort of Zen-like philosophy that I wasn't too worried what happened in court: I made peace with the idea that getting arrested was the most they were going to get, unless............So Buz kinda got it in his mind that the conduct leading to the original arrest was "abated by arrest".
  • Along came the Police Commissioner Frazier years and he was able to unload prisoner processing and holding to the state: Central Booking was created--supposedly improving "efficiency". Your court date was 30 days away, hanging over your head, and the new courtrooms for the now "newly" independent judges soon became circuses, overflowing with cases. The first waves of  "Zebra" operations and the Violent Crime Task Force arrests soon brought the new Central Booking to its knees, holding far more prisoners that it was supposed to.
  • So, eventually, the idea, the notion of a trial (except for some felonies) went away. Go to any of the courthouses for District Court in the morning. The poor ASA has defendants and their lawyers lined up to "try" their case in less than 2 minutes, or discuss it or something. Judges can take a powder for a while. The first thing the ASA asks: 'who wants a postponement?' A  long line ensue by his table. Next: "who wants a jury trial"? another long line. Who want to be given PBJ for a guilty plea?" (This is rarer, since they're offered abatement now.) [Or were]. And, finally, the cases that do go to trial are almost always agreed "statements of facts". Hardly ever does a real trial take place in district court.
  • So, the huge number of arrests continued thru the term of Police Commissioner Norris, who implemented New York style of policing in Baltimore. Central Booking and the courtrooms were becoming ever more chaotic. So, as a sort of bureaucratic response to an untenable situation, the ASAs assigned (sentenced) to Central Booking simply began reviewing cases and declaring them "abated by arrest." {See, the Electromagnetic Radiation emanating from Buz's brain somehow reached the brains of the ASAs, even though they were separated in time and space, often in years.} On a serious note, they were simply making a judgment that the crime was very minor, and it was not worth the effort to now require them to show up in court, go thru the whole process again, and end up with little or no punishment, and simply clog up the courthouses even more. (Of course, many would not show, leading to arrest warrants, and clogging up the system yet again.)
  • Buz always took this to be a dismissal of the charges by the state's attorney's office. They were not making, in this case, any judgement as to the legality of the arrest. They were simply saying: "case closed".  The ASA is simply saying: ok, you were bad, minor charge, it's over, it was abated by the arrest. Though this may be unheard of anywhere else, it was a strange bureaucratic adjustment to a peculiarly Baltimore situation.
  • Of course, there was also some percentage of arrests in which it was determined that there was "no probable cause." Those were dismissed in the same way. So, the open question there is how many of all these humble arrests were for really no probable cause or the officers were too careless, lazy, or stupid to actually write something worthwhile. (After a while, they began expecting "abated by arrest", so why bother writing anything hard: the ASA was just going to through it out, anyway. So it became an ever-spiraling self-fulfilling expectation and result.) Or were the ASAs pressured to rigorously declare these to be no probable cause.  I always thought no probable cause was a "bad arrest." So, I guess if there's anything illegal, this is where it's at. I just wish they'd never have used my term "abated by arrest". And of course, nobody then cared; no one was minding the store, the only thing that counted was that the arrests continue.
  • The other "abated by arrest" charges are, in my mind, simply short-circuiting the nolle prosse process of saving the city the time and money of not having these folks come to court.
  • Your consultant thinks that the vast majority of these arrests were legal. Look, all you gotta do is drive around town, especially in the evening, in many neighborhoods. People are littering with abandon--both little and big littering; drinking on the street, urinating, fighting, being disorderly; riding illegal dirt bikes and ATVs, gambling, drividng like crazy people, etc., etc., etc. Any dummy can get a humble arrest every day. Ya don't have make anything up. And this doesn't even count open drug-dealing and smoking.
  • So now, we have Joe or Jane the miscreant, who gets locked up for something "minor", and now is shown the door at Central Booking and never has to come to court. They were told that either their case was abated by arrest or had no probable cause. So they left with the feeling that: a.) they didn't do anything wrong; b.) the police were picking on them because..........c.) they were the victim of this evil system  because "they" were out to get their poor selves and d.) there's nothing wrong with what they were doing and e.) let's go do it again and you know, these square, chump, punk law-abiders are pretty easy to get over on. And the law is weak, not as smart and tough as me; plus now I got my street cred; I got locked up by the man. No, I am the man. (There is only a bit of irony here in the folks who changed the slogan from Believe to Behave.)
  • One can easily see the psycho-social leap that is made when a person feels impunity about committing little crimes evolves into committing bigger crimes--because they can. After all, the chumps (the evil system of us) won't do anything.
  • Buz read the expungement article and the poster guy, who's been in and out of jail for 15 years, and just shakes his dumb head. The expungements granted under the new law are nice: they will probably actually help a very small number of people. The truth of the matter is that for the vast majority of employers, the explanation that the State's Attorney dropped your charges would be good enough (assuming that's all you got). The people in and out of jail many times, though, have larger issues than their humble arrests--which if they have more than one are big red flags in and of themselves. They say: don't hire me; I love street stuff; and I can't learn; lets go be tough and hang on the corner; we can do whatever we want; we know how to get over; rules are for those stupid nerds; those nuisance laws are really a nuisance; I should be able to do whatever I feel like.
  • Buz sees very few people in his vocational coaching work even convicted of these nuisance laws. They usually nolle prossed. Open container, urinating, and related offenses often are an indication of substance abuse and alcohol issues. Same with possession charges. However, plenty of people can get jobs with these issues, if they deal with their problems sincerely and actually work at it. If you keep doing nuisance crimes, at some point, you are, in fact, a nuisance--no matter what the case results say--to yourself, your family, and the rest of us.
  • The real problems are with guys (and some gals) who have convictions, often more than one, for assault: employers run the other way. And forget robbery, theft, and burglary convictions. Expungement really is a non-issue for them.


ppatin said...

Very interesting post. Back in the day before Central Booking where would arrestees get their first hearing in the morning? Would they all be driven to district court, or were minor cases actually handled by an ASA at the station?

buzoncrime said...

Each district (except Northeastern) had their own courtroom and assigned ASA; judges would rotate thru for a month or two. The trials were actually held in a courtroom in a separate wing of the police building. The now-existing court buildings on Wabash and North Avenue didn't exist then.
After their arrest, they would see Pre-Trial Release Investigators and a Court Commissioner. As I mentioned, minor cases were held over till the next morning. Many times, judges would tell the defendants:"you need to get your booze or drug problem fixed. I don't want to see you again, or you're going to jail for a while." They don't get that now.
However, the judges felt that their hearing cases and having offices in the police station gave the appearance of a lack of judicial impartiality. So the court buildings were created at the huge cost of building and staffing; people still think "the system" is against them. But, now, at least, the judges can claim to be truly impartial. (And most have always really tried to be fair.)
Oh, and thanks for the compliment!

Anonymous said...

Would the OPD get the cases that morning as well? Was a PD even assigned in most cases?

Despite popular opinion on Baltimore Crime, it's quite clear the SAO needs more money, ASAs and support staff.

Even more pressing is the need for more court rooms and Judges.

buzoncrime said...

In the earlier years, I believe the public defender would not represent anyone for the real minor charges. Eventually, though, the office of Pre-Trial Release had investigators in every lockup most of the time; those who were deemed indigent qualified for representation based on a cursory investigation.

Clearly, there is something wrong with the system now; district court is like a circus most days; and circuit court is generally plea-bargain city.

Anonymous said...

In most counties, preying for a jury trial is a last resort while in district court. The circuit court judges are usually tougher resulting in harsher penalties if the accused is found guilty. In Baltimore however, the system is so FUBAR that the standard practice in the defense bar is to PJT unless it's a select handful of district court judges. This results in the circuit court docket being swamped with not only with the ample cases that they have exclusive original jurisdiction over, but all of the concurrent jurisdiction cases, resulting in the need of the state to offer ridiculous plea bargains to clear the docket. Even then people languish in jail for months and months awaiting trial, but are often told no courtroom available when their trial date does come.

We need either need more court houses, or enough judges to start night court.

buzoncrime said...

Perhaps, but though Maryland is the wealthiest state, Baltimore is by far its poorest city. And the last session of the legislature showed that the electorate hasn't the slightest stomach for new taxes of any kind.

There is so much crime.........The only viable solution is to amend the laws, so that a much larger number of cases don't qualify for a jury trial. (Of course, it would be nice if there was less crime, but that is going to be a long-haul process.)