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According to Marilyn Mosby, the state's attorney for Baltimore, that charge, carrying a switchblade, was legally unfounded. Gray's death, due to a spinal injury he suffered in the back of a police van, thus has shined a light on the way police officers abuse their arrest powers to impose arbitrary punishment, a practice that helps explain the anger on display in Baltimore last week.
Of the various criminal charges that Mosby announced on Friday in connection with Gray's death, the most striking was false imprisonment. Mosby said Lt. Brian Rice, together with Officers Edward Nero and Garrett Miller, "failed to establish probable cause for Mr. Gray's arrest as no crime had been committed."
Maryland law defines a switchblade as a knife with "a blade that opens automatically by hand pressure applied to a button, spring, or other device in the handle of the knife." Since Gray's folding knife did not fit that description, Mosby said, he plainly was not guilty of the crime that was the pretext for hauling him away in handcuffs.
Although there is some dispute on that point, Baltimore has a history of such trumped-up charges. A 2006 class action lawsuit backed by the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) and the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) cited "a pattern and practice" of bogus arrests for minor, often vaguely defined offenses such as loitering, trespassing, impeding pedestrian traffic, disorderly conduct, disturbing the peace, and failure to obey a police command.
Of 76,497 people arrested by Baltimore police without warrants in 2005, the lawsuit noted, prosecutors declined to charge 25,293—nearly one out of three. According to the state's attorney, those cases were "legally insufficient."
The arrests nevertheless had real consequences for people who were publicly kidnapped by armed agents of the state, strip-searched, and placed in "small, filthy, and overcrowded cells" for hours or days. In addition to the humiliation, degradation, and loss of liberty inflicted by this process, the ACLU and NAACP noted, victims of illegal arrests "may lose their jobs or be denied job opportunities in the future as a result of the permanent stigma of having a criminal charge on their record."