back to top

Baltimore Courts Struggle To Handle Protest Arrests

"If you are going to make mass arrests, the rest of the criminal justice system needs to be ready to handle the cases," the deputy public defender said about nearly 235 defendants who were arrested Monday.

Posted on

Confusion ruled Baltimore’s jails and courts on Wednesday as the system struggled to handle the cases of nearly all of the 235 protesters arrested during Monday night’s violent demonstrations.

The arrested demonstrators were packed, unshowered, into small cells in Baltimore's central booking facilities and waited until Wednesday morning to appear before a judge, public defenders told BuzzFeed News. The court system was shuttered on Tuesday because of the protests.

"If you are going to make mass arrests, the rest of the criminal justice system needs to be ready to handle the cases," Deputy Public Defender Natalie Finegar told BuzzFeed News. She said 40 lawyers from Baltimore's Office of the Public Defender were sent to the jails in response to the arrests.

On Wednesday, dozens of defendants were given bail reviews at the John R. Hargrove Sr. Courthouse — the only one of the city’s four courts that didn’t remain closed. As one defendant after another appeared via a video monitor — they were sitting at jail facilities about six miles away — their defense attorneys struggled to get Judge Kathleen Sweeney to give each case individualized attention.

Many who appeared were given bail offers that defense lawyers said were very costly when compared to the charges, a situation that Finegar said was not uncommon in Baltimore.

In one case, a 26-year-old father of two facing a misdemeanor burglary charge became emotional after Judge Sweeney declined to reduce his bail below $35,000 bond or $500 cash. He said he needed to provide for his family and could not do so from jail.

“I was just walking down the street, and I saw people running from the police,” the defendant said on the video monitor, ignoring the protests of his lawyer, who had asked him to remain silent. “They were hitting people, so I ran, because I was scared for my life.”

The defendant, becoming increasingly agitated, went on to say that he hadn’t been at the address where the police said that he had looted. Judge Sweeney advised him that everything he was saying was being recorded and could be used against him in trial.

Shane Smith was arrested near Kim Liquor's, which was being looted on Monday night. He was charged with burglary in the fourth degree, a misdemeanor. The laborer, who has a high school diploma, lives with his girlfriend, and has no prior convictions, was not participating, and wasn’t caught with any property, his lawyer Josh Insley argued.

"Gawking is not a crime," Insley said. Judge Sweeney kept a court commissioner's previous offer of $5,000 bail.

In another case, a defendant charged with rioting and other offenses – he turned himself in after being photographed smashing a police car with a traffic cone – was given $500,000 bail, The Guardian reported.

The arrests came during protests demanding justice for Freddie Gray, a 25-year-old unarmed black man who who died under mysterious circumstances in police custody earlier in April. Authorities said crowds looted several businesses and set fire to nearly 150 cars. Riot police swept the city and brought 201 adults and 34 juveniles to the city's main detention facilities.

There, according to Maryland law, the defendants should immediately get a copy of the charges filed against them, the public defender's office said. Within 24 hours, they should be brought before a court commissioner for an initial bail hearing. Shortly afterward, those who can't make bail should appear before a judge, who reviews their case and decides whether to change the conditions for their release or keep them incarcerated pending trial.

But very little of that appears to have happened for most of the defendants, according to four public defenders and two private defense attorneys who are representing some of those arrested.

(Speaking at a press conference on Wednesday, Captain Eric Kowalczyk of the Baltimore Police Department said that the police had up to 48 hours to charge defendants before being forced to release them. Finegar told BuzzFeed News that this is simply not true and that Kowalczyk “needs to crack open a book and freshen up on the law.”)

Maryland Governor Larry Hogan said in a letter to the city’s courts that he was suspending the law requiring prosecutors to bring defendants before a judicial officer within 24 hours as part of a state-of-emergency decree. “It is our opinion that the governor does not have the authority to do that,” Finegar said. “He has authority over state agencies, but the courts are not an agency.” Hogan’s spokesperson didn’t return a request for comment.

Finegar told BuzzFeed News that her office was planning to file habeas corpus petitions asking for the immediate release of 68 of the 111 defendants who have not yet been charged. She said that those arrested on Monday were staying in overcrowded cells holding as many as 20 people. She added that many defendants had gone 18 hours without food, and that several had not received medical care despite having been injured during arrest.

There were conflicting accounts of how many of those arrested had seen a judge and how many had been released.

At least 111 remained in jail on Wednesday evening without charges, according to officials with the public defender’s office. Many more were told of the accusations against them long after the 24 hours required by law, those officials said. Rochelle Ritchie, a spokesperson for the state's attorney, told BuzzFeed News that some defendants were charged in court on Tuesday, and that 101 were released on Wednesday.

Jerome Bivens, a private defense attorney who represented two of the people arrested on Monday, told BuzzFeed News that the delays were inexcusable for many of the defendants given the charges that will likely be filed against them.

“Even if you are not being charged with rioting, they are lumping everyone together,” Bivens said. “Every case should be taken individually, because when you generalize, that’s guilt by association.”

Cautioning that she did not have a complete list of charges — and that police have not yet charged many defendants at all — Finegar said that after reviewing dozens of cases she had “anecdotal” evidence that the majority of the defendants would be charged with misdemeanors such as burglary and disorderly conduct.

“Some folks are only being charged with simple assault,” Finegar said. “That’s a whole other circumstance than rioting. They are lumping everybody together and trying to portray everyone who was arrested that night as unreasonable folks, when in fact the vast majority of them are not being charged with serious crimes.”

Legal experts at the University of Maryland’s law school said court officials and prosecutors should be cautious about potential violations of due process.

“We should be as concerned with adherence to process as we are to methodically investigating the police officers and their responsibility for Freddie Gray’s death,” said Renée M. Hutchins, a professor at the Carey School of Law. “Sitting in jail for days, with no indication of what charges are against you, should not be something we are seeing in the American criminal justice system.”

Nicolás Medina Mora is a reporter for BuzzFeed News and is based in New York.

Contact Nicolás Medina Mora at nicolas.mora@buzzfeed.com.

Mary Ann Georgantopoulos is a reporter for BuzzFeed News and is based in New York.

Contact Mary Ann Georgantopoulos at maryann.georgantopoulos@buzzfeed.com.

Got a confidential tip? Submit it here.

Promoted