Booze News: Distilled in Room 215

A blog about the Baltimore City Liquor Board

Police Statements in Liquor Board hearings

Written by Kristine Dunkerton

Police officers are often the sole witnesses to violations that put liquor license holders before the liquor board. The current board requires officers to appear at the board’s hearings to support their already filed police reports. If an officer cannot or does not appear, then the violation is waived, and the license holder receives no penalty for their violation. Remember, these violations come from sworn officer reports.

If officers are exempted from attending hearings, and the board is allowed to use their sworn statements instead, the board’s efficiency could be greatly improved. An already overworked police force would gain a welcome break, and negligent liquor licensees would be given the hearing their community deserves. The question is whether current law allows for such a system, as some might accuse the police statements of being hearsay.

The Court of Special Appeals decided Antoine Travers v. Baltimore Police Department on May 6, 1997. In Travers, a disciplinary hearing before the Police Commissioner admitted hearsay statements into the record, and relied on them in its decision. The alleged victim made the hearsay statements, and the statements were admitted through a witness officer’s testimony before the Commissioner. After the Commissioner decided against the accused officer, the officer appealed his case, claiming that hearsay statements should not have been admitted.

The Court of Special Appeals upheld the Police Commissioner’s decision, holding that that the procedure followed in administrative agencies is not as strict as that of courts, and evidence rules can be relaxed. It holds further that administrative agencies can admit hearsay statements, so long as the statements are “reliable and probative.” “For instance, statements that are sworn under oath [are] presumed to possess a greater caliber of reliability.” A “disinterested witness,” such as a police officer, is also presumed to be more objective than other parties. If the statement is credible and probative, it can stand as the sole basis for an administrative agency’s decision.

Given the Court of Special Appeals’ ruling, it seems quite clear than a police officer’s sworn statement is sufficient evidence to be admitted before the liquor board. The officers’ reports are sworn statements; the hearsay admitted in Travers did not even meet that threshold. A police officer, being neither a victim nor the accused party, is also disposed to objective and credible statements. Thus, so long as the liquor board finds the police report to be reliable and probative, it should be sufficient evidence to allow for a liquor board hearing. A licensee that wishes to cross-examine an officer retains the ability to subpoena him or her, effectively ending any arguments that sworn statements circumvent a licensee’s ability to do so.

Allowing police reports to stand alone as evidence in a liquor board hearing is good public policy. It ensures violators have their day in court, and the community is not without efficient and immediate redress. It lightens the burden on officers, and prevents an already crowded liquor board docket from overflowing with cases that should only be brought once.

Written by Benjamin Smith, Community Partnerships Coordinator.

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