Rashad James could think of nothing that would explain why a Harford County, Md., deputy suspected he was impersonating an attorney, at least, other than his skin color.
The encounter was “surreal,” James, an African American attorney with Maryland Legal Aid, told a roomful of reporters Tuesday. On the morning of March 6, he said at the news conference, he strolled into a Harford County district courtroom to do his job, only for a deputy to detain him to ask for proof that he was a lawyer, suggesting that, in fact, he was a criminal suspect only pretending to be a lawyer.
But after James recounted the experience, a reporter wanted to know: “Why do you think this happened because you’re black?”
James, reserved and prone to brevity, took a moment before simply saying, “The facts of the situation speak for themselves.”
“I’ve never heard of anyone being mistaken and assumed that they’re not an attorney until proven otherwise,” he said.
James filed a complaint against the deputy Tuesday with the Harford County Sheriff’s Office, accusing the officer of racial bias. Rashad’s attorneys, Andrew D. Freeman and Chelsea J. Crawford, described the incident as “lawyering while black,” the latest in a long list of daily, mundane activities carried out by African Americans that have aroused suspicion in police or white people. In recent months, black people have complained after being detained or questioned by police while golfing, gardening, shopping, sitting in a Starbucks, leaving an Airbnb, grilling out and napping at a college.
“This is another instance of a suspicion and second guessing that attaches to black men,” Crawford said at the news conference. “This is a place where lawyers are supposed to be confident advocates for their clients. And how can you do that if there is a fear that you are going to be accused of being the client impersonating the lawyer or perpetrating a fraud on the court?”
In a statement to The Washington Post, Harford County Sheriff Jeffrey R. Gahler said the complaint has been assigned to the sheriff’s department’s Office of Professional Standards for a “complete and thorough investigation.”
“We take all complaints seriously,” he added. “If those claims are founded and violations of agency policy are revealed, we will take immediate and appropriate administrative action. Until that time, this investigation is active, and we cannot make further comment. As Sheriff, it is my hope that you will respect the investigative process and reserve judgment until all facts are discovered."
On the morning of March 6, James says, he strolled into Harford County District Court in Bel Air, Md., to argue before a judge that his client’s case should be expunged. His client was a no-show, he told the judge; James didn’t know, according to the complaint, that there was a warrant out for his client’s arrest. But the hearing moved forward, and the judge granted James’s motion.
“That should have been the end of it,” said Freeman, who is white. “I assure you, if it would have been me, I would have just walked out.”
Instead, with “James looking the way he does,” Freeman said, a Harford County deputy who had sat through the hearing flagged him down in the hallway. Apparently, something seemed fishy to the deputy. He called out to James — but addressed him by his client’s name, implicitly accusing him of being the wanted suspect, according to the complaint.
James informed the deputy that he was the man’s attorney. The deputy asked to see his ID, and James offered a driver’s license.
But “that’s still not good enough,” Freeman said.
The deputy gave it back and asked James to follow him to an interview room in the courthouse, the complaint says. There, James’s attorneys say the deputy asked him to produce his state bar identification and a business card. Neither are required to enter a courtroom, James said, and he did not have either on him.
The deputy said he was going to make a phone call. According to the complaint, he placed two calls “presumably to the Client Protection Fund of the Bar of Maryland” to verify that James was an attorney. Upon receiving confirmation, he allowed James to leave.
The lengths to which the deputy went, Crawford said, were “excessive and discriminatory in nature.”
“I think this demonstrates that this officer just didn’t want to believe that Mr. James was the attorney,” she said. “It reflects a refusal to accept a plain fact, and that is the kind of officer who should give us some pause if they’re out in the field and refuse to accept the plain information as presented to them.”
A reporter asked James whether he was angry.
James didn’t give a yes or no answer.
“I knew that, regardless, I had done nothing wrong,” he said.
Isaac Stanley-Becker contributed to this report.
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