A 28-year-old journeyman roofer was mistakenly held at the D.C. jail for more than two months after a misdemeanor charge against him was dismissed and was freed only after another inmate flagged his own lawyer to the problem.
After being arrested following a dispute at his home, Carlton O. Harris was trapped in a jail bureaucracy that since 2005 has cost D.C. taxpayers more than $18 million paid to settle lawsuits on behalf of thousands of inmates held past their release dates or wrongly strip-searched.
Harris, a father of two in Southeast Washington, was arrested March 28. Prosecutors dropped the case the next day but Harris was jailed for 77 days without a chance to see a judge or be granted a defense attorney.
He finally went before a court June 15 only after the other inmate’s lawyer alerted federal defenders, who then brought Harris to the attention of court officials, according to lawyers familiar with the case and a review by U.S. marshals.
The D.C. Department of Corrections and its legal counsel declined several interview requests about the events. “Due to safety and security reasons, the Department of Corrections declines to comment,” spokeswoman Keena Blackmon said in a one-sentence statement, declining to elaborate.
The U.S. Marshals Service, which transports prisoners to and from the D.C. Superior and U.S. District courts in the District, investigated the handling of Harris after The Washington Post asked court officials about his extended jail stay.
Findings and documents from the review read to The Post show that marshals were told Harris was being held on a pending D.C. case even though the matter had been dropped.
“It was a clerical error by the D.C. Department of Corrections,” said a law enforcement official familiar with the review who summarized its findings on the condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to speak for the department.
Just a few weeks before Harris’s arrest, the District’s lawyers admitted in a long-running federal lawsuit that the jail had detained Gregory Smith for 23 days longer that it should have on his sentence from 2014.
The corrections department had claimed for nearly three years that it had never received Smith’s release order from a judge. But in February, city officials in court filings acknowledged that the jail received a time-stamped release order for Smith the day it was issued on March 18, 2014, and that it had been in Smith’s institutional file all along.
The city this fall is set to start paying $6 million awarded in the latest, 2013 overdetention settlement, reached after then-U. S. District Chief Judge Royce C. Lamberth of Washington blasted the city’s failure to deliver on promised reforms as “conscience-shocking.”
A new class-action lawsuit on behalf of prisoners alleges the government is hiding the extent of errors, citing recent overdetentions such as Harris’s.
In responses to some of those pending claims, lawyers representing the District say the system has heeded past calls for improvements and dramatically cut down on mistakes.
The government review and records from an attorney representing Harris show that after he was released March 29 from D.C. Superior Court on the dropped misdemeanor , he was returned to the jail because he had an outstanding federal warrant in Maryland.
That warrant was in place because of a traffic citation — from 2013.
Harris had been cited for allegedly driving with a revoked license on the grounds of the National Institutes of Health in Bethesda, where, Harris recalled recently, he was working with a roofing crew, and had not followed up in court to resolve the traffic case.
A day after his dropped D.C. misdemeanor case, March 30, federal marshals called the jail to bring Harris to the District’s federal court to start his transfer to Maryland federal court over the warrant because of the ticket.
D.C. corrections officials told marshals that Harris still had a pending D.C. criminal charge and could not be released to them, according to the review of the incident read to The Post.
The marshals on March 31 filed a formal request known as a detainer for the jail to turn over Harris when his local case allowed for the handoff, the review read to The Post found.
That left Harris sitting in D.C. jail for another 10 weeks until a fellow inmate spoke up.
“They spent $20,000 to house this person for 77 days because nobody called to fetch him. Really?” said William C.C. “Chas” Claiborne III, who represents Harris and helped represent the two previous jail class-action cases dealing with overdetentions. Claiborne said: “If you put stuff in a locker at an airport, they’re not going to hold it indefinitely until you come get it. But they’ll hold a person in jail?”
Other inmates told Harris he was not supposed to be locked up for more than a couple of days without seeing a judge, Harris said in a recent interview, but he thought guards would ignore or punish him if he complained.
“You’re just going to make it worse, that’s what I figured,” said Harris, a Washington native and father of two who attended parochial schools including Archbishop Carroll High until the ninth grade.
A jail database entry for March 29 — after Harris’s D.C. case had been dropped but he was returned to the jail — does not mention the dropped case that could have released him or any criminal charge that would have kept him, and shows he was being held “in transit” on a federal detention warrant, according to the record that Claiborne obtained and shared.
Claiborne said jails should regularly double-check an inmate’s status or keep a court order in each one’s file showing whether the inmate should be held or released. “This is not rocket science,” he said.
Rather than either of those procedures, Claiborne said, the D.C. jail’s process is to hold a prisoner until another agency asks for him, “with predictable results.”
In a statement, Lamont J. Ruffin, acting chief deputy U.S. marshal of the U.S. District Court, said, “This was an unfortunate set of circumstances for Mr. Harris, but after a thorough review of our processes specific to this situation, the U.S. Marshals Service was not negligent and did not cause this apparent overdetention.”
Under its national policy, marshals are required to check the status of warrants only every six months, said a spokesman for the service.
“I know I had a right to a lawyer,” Harris said recently, “but when you’re in their custody, it’s out of your control. You kind of got to sit back and let them do their job. You speak up, they can go real bad. They can put you in a room, cuff you and beat you down. You can speak up, but it turns out you’re going to have to shut up.”
Harris said he had never been held in D.C. Jail. Court records in other cases show he pleaded guilty in D.C. Superior Court to driving under the influence in 2012 and with a revoked license in 2014, and was fined and given a 30-day suspended sentence in each case.
By May, many weeks after his D.C. case had been dropped and he was still behind bars, Harris said, “I started to lose hope, and then I was very worried.”
He said that when he had explained his plight to his Department of Corrections caseworker, she told him she had no further information.
He was visited about twice a week by the mother of his boys, a 5-year-old and 6-month-old, and his own mother, a D.C. Public Schools teacher aide — who found a record of the Maryland warrant online, but was told when she inquired that U.S. officials there would not bring him from an out-of state jail for such a relatively minor offense.
Harris called from jail to the D.C. Public Defender Service for Superior Court — which provides attorneys for defendants who cannot afford to hire one — and that office told him it had not been assigned to his case, and eventually advised him to call its federal counterpart for U.S District Court in Washington.
Harris said he was about to do that when, unknown to him, the federal defender’s office contacted the marshals on June 14, who checked on Harris’s status and arranged to bring him to federal court, two officials familiar with his case confirmed.
He was called out of his D.C. jail cell early June 15 and told he was finally going to court. U.S. Magistrate Robin M. Meriweather ordered his release in Washington that day, and Harris reported to the federal court in Maryland the next day about the years-old ticket.
Asked why he never paid or showed up in Maryland federal court on the first ticket, Harris said in an interview: “I have no excuses why I didn’t pay it. I just wasn’t focused on that ticket. I mean it had been years, I was 24, I was still trying to get my direction and keep my job.”
However, after reporting in with the Maryland federal court right after his D.C. jail release, Harris failed to show for a July court hearing and faced a new bench warrant.
Harris and Claiborne declined to comment on that proceeding.
Harris said he isn’t sure who or what is to blame for his 10-week detention in D.C. Jail. He knows the impact, however. “I had a good job, and that’s gone right now.”
Harris said he kept his union card and works on call with a temporary construction and industrial labor staffing agency, but is struggling to provide for his children and pay for food, car insurance and a phone.
“You’ve got to be patient, otherwise you’re going to work yourself into a worse position than you’re in,” Harris said. “The work will come.”