Prince George's to Step Up Anti-Gun Effort

By Henri E. Cauvin
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, November 6, 2008

It was the picture of cooperation, an array of federal and local law enforcement officials assembled before the cameras, announcing a joint effort unprecedented in Maryland's most violent jurisdictions. The initiative, officials said at the 2006 news conference in Greenbelt, was changing the way law enforcement attacked gun crime in Baltimore and would do the same in Prince George's County.

Convicted felons caught carrying firearms would face the prospect of federal prosecutions and long sentences in distant federal prisons.

Police in Baltimore have poured manpower into the effort, known as Maryland Exile, because of the possibility of sentences served far away. Hundreds of Exile indictments have been returned, and the initiative is seen by many as one reason the city is on pace for its lowest homicide total in decades.

Prince George's police, meanwhile, have dedicated only one officer to the initiative. This year, while Exile investigations in Baltimore have produced federal charges against 177 people, Prince George's cases have led to federal indictments against 34 people.

Now, in an acknowledgment that Prince George's could do more, Acting Police Chief Roberto Hylton is planning to assign 10 detectives to work on Exile investigations with agents from the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives.

"Exile is a strategy that has been proven to be effective," Hylton said in a recent interview. "I've seen the reductions in Baltimore. So why not embrace it?"

A successor to an earlier Maryland initiative and a variation on the original Exile program launched in the 1990s in Richmond, Maryland Exile is another in a long line of efforts to foster cooperation between often-rivalrous federal and local law enforcement agencies.

In Baltimore, the effort has been unusually successful in putting federal agents and prosecutors alongside local police officers and state prosecutors, U.S. Attorney Rod J. Rosenstein said. "The level of coordination is -- I believe is unprecedented, certainly here and maybe even nationwide," he told reporters last month at a briefing touting Exile in Baltimore.

Most Exile defendants are charged federally. In a minority of cases, however, the mere threat of federal prosecution has helped prosecutors induce guilty pleas to state charges carrying a mandatory minimum sentence of five years. In many such cases, prosecutors present state defendants with what are called Federal Letters of Intent to Prosecute, or FLIP letters. The message: Take the plea or face certain federal indictment.

Exile in Baltimore has broadened beyond gun possession cases against convicted felons. Another unit of Exile investigators is targeting repeat offenders who have not necessarily been caught with a firearm but are suspected of significant involvement in deadly violence in the city. "You don't have to make a murder case to get a murderer off the street," said Assistant U.S. Attorney Jason Weinstein, who coordinates Exile in Baltimore.

The targets of the repeat offender initiative end up on what is called the Dirty Dozen List, Weinstein said. Of the 57 people who have landed on the list since 2006, 43 have been taken off the street -- people such as David Ellerby. Ellerby was acquitted in at least three state cases, including one for murder, before being targeted by Exile and charged with federal drug offenses. Now, because of two previous convictions, he faces a mandatory life term when he is sentenced Nov. 14.

In Prince George's, such success stories have been less frequent. Federal prosecutors found that, unlike in Baltimore, they could not rely on local police or prosecutors to refer every pertinent gun arrest to ATF and the U.S. attorney's office.

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