Robert Lee Copeland, a former Prince George's County electrician now living in Portsmouth, Va., says he is "mad as hell" after a lengthy and confusing trip through the justice system.
Two months after serving a 14-day prison sentence for two traffic violations, Copeland, 42, was rearrested, charged with violating his probation, and held in federal custody for 17 days because he couldn't post a bond 10 times higher than for his original crimes.
When Copeland finally got into a courtroom in Balitmore last Monday, the probation violation charges were dismissed in less than 10 minutes. The federal magistrate ordered the government to pay Copeland's bus fare home.
"I was jailed in Portsmouth, in Norfolk, in Richmond and in Baltimore" Copeland said from his Portsmouth home. "I'm mad as hell, but what can I do about it?
The court-appointed lawyer who represented Copeland last week described the case as one of "the government going after a flea with a baseball bat."
According to court records, it all started in September 1976 when Copeland, who then lived in Forestville, drove to Andrews Air Force Base to visit a cousin recovering from open-heart surgery. The base guard asked to see Copeland's driver's license. Copeland allegedly protested and drove off, dragging the guard who had his hand on the car door.
Copeland was convicted of failing to show his driver's license upon demand and fleeing a police officer. A federal judge in Baltimore sentenced him to 14 days in jail and 18 months probation, with the special condition Copeland participate in whatever treatment program the probation office thought was necessary. They thought he had a drinking problem.
Copeland appealed the conviction. In the two years it took the U.S. 4th Circuit Court of Appeals in Richmond to rule, he was unemployed and moved in with a sister in Portsmouth.
When the appeals court upheld the conviction last July. Copeland was hospitalized in Richmond with a broken back, arm and leg. While on a brief leave from the hospital last October, he was picked up unconscious on the streets of Portsmouth with a skull fracture and hospitalized again. He doesn't know what happened to him.
Last Nov. 21, federal marshals took him from the hospital to the Richmnd city jail to begin serving his 14-day sentence. He completed it at a local lockup in Virginia Beach last Dec.4.
But Copeland's troubles with the bureaucracy weren't over.
A Virginia probation office saw him briefly and directed him to go to Alcoholics Anonymous. Copeland didn't think it was necessary. "I went through AA in the 60s," he said. "I don't drink nothing but beer. I don't get drunk no more."
His sister Marion tells a different story, however. "It's a mixed up mess," she said. 'I don't think he has a drinking problem. But one can of beer and he acts like he had a gallon of whiskey. Why does beer do that to him?"
The Virginia officer reportedly called Copeland "obnoxious" and "beligerent" in official reports, according to lawyers familiar with the case. The Virginia probation department refused to accept transfer of Copeland's court file which was still held at the Maryland probation office in Hyattsville.
Finally, Copeland was ordered to report in person to a probation officer in Hyattsville on a disorderly conduct charge and didn't keep the date.
He was out of jail for three days when his sister told him federal marshals were looking form him for two probation violations -- failure to seek counseling from AA and failure to appear at the Hyattsville hearing
He said he walked down to the marshals' office and they jailed him until he could be brought back to Baltimore. A magistrate in Norfolk, following the recommendation of a Baltimore judge, set bond at $5,000.
Unable to make the bond, Copeland stayed in jail for 17 days until his court appearance last Monday in Baltimore before Magistrate Daniel E. Klein Jr.
At the hearing, government attorneys asked that the probation charges against Copeland be dropped in light of the time he served while awaiting trial and the apparent mix-up involving the Maryland and Virginia probation departments.
Klein agreed, but not before asking the lawyers assembled before him, "Have you all seen the movie 'And Justice for All'?" In the movie, filmed in Baltimore, a man is stopped for having a broken headlight and ends up being killed in jail.
"I guess it's a case of the bureaucracy taking over and nobody being in a position to cut it off," said Copeland's court-appointed attorney, Chester Cohen. "He was so relieved when the government said it would drop the charges, I thought he was going to cry."
Meanwhile, Copeland is still confused about where to report for probation. He was told in Baltimore to report to the probation office near his Virginia home.
But when he called, the officer "said he don't want no part of me," Copeland said. "He gave me the marshals' number and they didn't know what I was talking about. When they get the papers, they'll let me know."