The Maryland Office of the Public Defender announced Monday that it will launch an investigation into cases potentially affected by the recent announcement of possible thefts from the property room of the Salisbury Police Department.
The department announced Feb. 14 in a press release that, during a recent audit of its property storage facility, it found “evidence of a series of potentially egregious breaches of internal policy by a civilian employee.” Command staff determined there was reason to believe the employee “may have committed one or more thefts while working in the property storage facility,” the release said.
The department contacted the Wicomico County State’s Attorney’s Office and the Maryland State Police were asked to conduct a criminal investigation, according to the release.
Prosecutors later announced they were reviewing cases involving property in the police department’s custody dating back to April 1997, according to a news release from the office.
Wicomico County State’s Attorney Jamie Dykes said in an email Monday that “the scope and magnitude of this issue will remain unknown until a complete inventory of the property facilities is conducted,” but that the office has filed disclosure notices in all active cases and met with judges, the OPD and the defense bar. Victims in affected cases are also being notified that defendants may begin filing new motions.
The Maryland State Police drafted a plan for an audit and inventory, according to Dykes, which would involve a multi-agency team including the OPD. The Wicomico County State’s Attorney’s Office has also requested two full-time prosecutors and one investigator to form a Prosecution Integrity Unit in the office, Dykes said.
Melissa Rothstein, director of policy and development for the Maryland Office of the Public Defender, said Monday that the OPD is being updated on the investigation and audit.
“The State’s Attorney is in the best position to know what prosecutions involved evidence that may be compromised,” Rothstein said via email. “Given the complexities of identifying impacted cases and the different interests at stake, we all need to do what we can to identify what cases may have been implicated and how to redress any resulting injustices.”
Chasity Simpson, district public defender for Wicomico County, said in a statement that her office is looking at current cases that may require dismissal and past convictions of clients whose evidence may have been compromised. The investigation may take months, according to Simpson.
“Evidence integrity is a fundamental component of a fair trial,” Simpson said. “While the details on the extent of the issue are still forthcoming, this could impact hundreds or even thousands of current and former clients.”
Rothstein said attorneys do not yet know the scale of the problem but said it could be akin to the cases in Baltimore that were tainted by testimony and evidence from the members of the Gun Trace Task Force who were later federally indicted for racketeering.
The GTTF cases in Baltimore may also serve as a guide for how prosecutors and the OPD respond to the situation in Salisbury, she said.
In Baltimore, the State’s Attorney’s Office identified cases that it recognized had been compromised by the GTTF officers while the OPD also flagged cases where it was concerned, according to Rothstein. Where both sides agreed, prosecutors dropped pending cases and moved to vacate past convictions, using a new law that went into effect in October. The OPD will file motions to litigate in cases where the state did not agree to drop charges.
In the Wicomico County case, the OPD launched a hotline and an online form for individuals to provide information about their cases. Individuals who believe they were affected can call 410-635-0046 or fill out the form available online at www.opd.state.md.us.
Rothstein said the OPD is limited to representing people who qualify for their services. Other individuals who reach out to the office will have their information relayed to the private attorneys who represented them.