Prince George's County court officials are investigating whether a court commissioner abused his position by signing up two criminal defendants as clients of a legal services company that pays him commissions.
Sheri Lynn Papa and Devon Zuchelli, said in interviews that at the urging of the commissioner, Kevin R. Owens, they enrolled in a private plan that offers reduced-cost access to lawyers. Papa had appeared in court before Owens after she and Zuchelli, her boyfriend, were charged with second-degree assault as a result of an altercation with a police officer at a restaurant on May 20.
Papa, 22, and Zuchelli, 21, said that Owens told them he is paid $100 for each client he obtains for Pre-Paid Legal Services Inc., whose officials confirmed that Owens has been a sales associate but said they did not know he was also a court official.
Martha Raisin, the chief judge of the District Court system statewide, said yesterday that an investigation was begun after an attorney for Papa and Zuchelli went to District Court officials.
"The allegation is very serious," Raisin said. "It's raised a lot of concerns." She added, "We work very hard to engender a sense of confidence in the system. People lose confidence if [a judicial officer] has an appearance of a conflict of interest."
In a brief interview, Owens denied having sold legal plans to anyone.
"I don't know where you got that information, but that's not true," Owens said. "Whoever gave you this information is falsely wrong."
He then hung up on a reporter.
Commissioners are not judges and do not have to be lawyers, but they are judicial officers appointed by District Court officials. Except for rare cases, anyone charged with a crime in Maryland will first appear before a District Court commissioner, who determines whether there is probable cause and determines the conditions of release. Similar to magistrates, they are bound by virtually identical ethical rules.
Papa and Zuchelli found themselves in legal difficulty after an incident at a Lanham restaurant. The couple was having dinner with relatives and friends when Zuchelli went outside with his brother to smoke a cigarette, they said. When the brothers attempted to return, Prince George's police Officer Devin C. White, who was in the restaurant eating dinner, refused to let them in, Zuchelli and Papa said.
Zuchelli said when he tried to talk to the officer, White pushed him and his brother and pepper-sprayed him. Papa said that she touched White's shoulder to ask him to stop and that White kicked her in the stomach and hit her on the head with his baton.
The officer did not return a phone call seeking comment.
After the couple was arrested, Papa was taken before Owens, who released her on her own recognizance, and Zuchelli was released by another commissioner. Then Owens began calling them and asking for a meeting, the couple said.
When they met on May 26, Owens expressed sympathy and said he was concerned that county police seemed to mistreat people, Papa and Zuchelli said. He signed them to the legal services plan for an initial fee of $35 each and an agreement to have $25 deducted from each of their bank accounts on a monthly basis, Papa and Zuchelli said.
The legal services plan, a sort of "legal HMO," gives members access to lawyers who provide legal services for reduced fees. Papa and Zuchelli's attorney provided a copy of their Pre-Paid Legal Services application to The Washington Post, and a signature on it appears to be identical to one on Papa's court release order.
After enrolling them as members, Papa and Zuchelli said, Owens urged them to consider joining him as "sales associates" for the legal services plan. Officials with Oklahoma-based Pre-Paid Legal Services Inc. said that Owens became a sales associate in March.
"We'll have to take a serious look at this," said Leslie Fisher, attorney resources director for Pre-Paid Legal Services.
After signing with the company, Papa and Zuchelli said, they tried unsuccessfully for several weeks to reach a lawyer through an 800 number they were given. Two weeks ago, Zuchelli received a contract dated July 15 from Michael W. Moore, a lawyer with the Baltimore firm Weinstock, Stevan, Harris & Friedman, which contracts with Pre-Paid Legal Services.
Moore wrote that Zuchelli needed to pay a $750 retainer. Believing that that was too much money, Zuchelli and Papa then hired Riverdale lawyer Terrell N. Roberts III, whose name they obtained from Zuchelli's aunt. Moore's Baltimore law firm referred questions to Pre-Paid.
Roberts said that when Papa and Zuchelli told him that Owens had sold a legal services plan to them, he contacted District Court officials.
"He either knew what he's doing is wrong or is very unsophisticated," Roberts said, referring to Owens.
Papa and Zuchelli said that at the time, they were grateful that Owens seemed to be trying to help them.
"I thought, if he could help us, great," Papa said. "I totally trusted him. Because he was a commissioner, I thought he might know what he was talking about."
On Wednesday, charges against Papa and Zuchelli were dropped after White failed to appear in court.