Prince George's County prosecutors, overwhelmed by the increasing number of cases involving distribution of the drug PCP, have eased their trial policies and are reducing many charges from felonies to misdemeanors.
The shift has angered some police officers, who complain that it has allowed some of those arrested to slide through the judicial process and resume their dealing on the street quickly.
Norman Kiger, chief of the prosecutors' screening division that decides how charges will be applied, defended the change.
"We're swamped," he said. "We don't have the manpower in Circuit Court to try all of these cases ."
The county police force, using plainclothes officers, began stepping up efforts this summer to stop the growing use of phencyclidine, or PCP, an animal tranquilizer that often causes violent behavior among users. The drug is primarily ingested when the user smokes marijuana or parsley that has been sprayed with PCP.
Previously, all PCP charges, even simple possession, went to the higher Circuit Court. But Kiger said the new policy was developed during the summer at the direction of State's Attorney Arthur A. Marshall.
Under the new rules, Kiger said less serious cases are tried in the lower District Court, which deals only with misdemeanors, and the more serious felony cases are sent to Circuit Court.
In a July 24 memo to Marshall, Kiger said cases to be forwarded to the Circuit Court would be chosen based on the presence of "aggravating circumstances" including large amounts of drugs, previous felony convictions, selling to children or using children in the sales scheme. Marshall said his staff also seeks felony convictions when suspects have sold drugs to undercover officers.
Marshall, who is running for a Circuit Court judge's seat in next week's elections and is known for advocating tougher sentencing, surprised some judges with the policy change.
"That's incredible," Circuit Court Judge Howard Chasanow said yesterday. "If there's a rash of armed robberies, does that mean we're going to treat those suspects more leniently?"
Judge Graydon S. McKee III, chief of the county's District Court, is concerned about the new procedure, which amends some PCP distribution cases -- with potential 20-year penalties -- to possession charges that carry a maximum four-year penalty.
"The guy who is out in the street dealing this stuff is being treated the same as the kid who's stopped with one roach the butt of a marijuana cigarette in his pocket. It's not the same," McKee said.
Marshall defended his policy, saying that Circuit Court "judges feel these small drug cases clog up the docket so that they get short shrift in order to get to violent crimes."
Marshall said that most PCP possession cases get "probation at best" in the higher court, but "probably get more time out of the District Court."
The police teams responsible for the new wave of arrests are known as the "Wolf Pack" from the Seat Pleasant stations and the Drug Task Force from the Hyattsville station.
Since the sweeps began this summer, police said the teams have made about 475 drug-related arrests.
Kiger said, "The trouble is, they police are doing too good a job," and bringing in more cases than the courts can handle. But some of the officers making the drug arrests are not happy when the charges are downgraded.
One officer who works in an area known for high drug traffic, said that his informants say that "street dealers are no longer afraid of being arrested and prosecuted in Prince George's because they know their case will be dropped down to District Court."
That same officer, who asked not to be named, said he knew of a suspect, a known dealer who was arrested after nearly a pound of PCP was found in the individual's car, yet the charge was reduced to simple possession -- a misdemeanor -- and that person is out selling again. Capt. Ernest Riess, commander of the Seat Pleasant station said he is well aware of the prosecutors' new PCP policy, but acknowledged that voluminous arrests made by his men were "kind of plugging up the tube a little bit."
Sgt. Mark Nelson, who works in the Hyattsville station, said the reduced charges "bothers the officers, but that's just part of the system."
The Prince George's policy contrasts to some neighboring jurisdictions.
In Montgomery County, there is no set policy, "but we treat PCP very seriously," said Assistant State's Attorney Barry Hamilton. "It's rare, where we think we could get a felony conviction, where we send a case to district court."
"If it's simply possession, it's a misdemeanor," said Howard County's chief prosecutor, William R. Hymes. "If It's possession with intent to distribute, then it's a felony."