Over the past year or so, police have been urged to investigate African-Americans for a litany of mundane activities. Operating a lemonade a stand. Waiting for a friend at Starbucks. Golfing too slowly.
Add “lawyering while black” to the list.
A black attorney says he was detained at a Bel Air, Maryland, courthouse earlier this month by a sheriff’s deputy who didn’t believe he was actually a lawyer.
On March 6, Rashad James, a lawyer with Maryland Legal Aid’s Community Lawyering Initiative, had just finished a hearing on behalf of a client who was absent.
He says a sheriff’s deputy approached him and incorrectly called him by the client’s name. When James corrected the deputy, stating he was the lawyer for the client, the deputy asked for his identification.
James says the deputy then asked him to follow him into an interview room, where he asked for James’ business cards and his state bar card.
“It was a very surreal moment,” he said.
James said the deputy released him without incident after about 10 minutes.
The Sheriff’s Office is investigating
James and his lawyer, Chelsea Crawford, filed a complaint letter Wednesday with the county sheriff’s office.
“If he was white this wouldn’t have happened,” Crawford said.
Speaking to reporters the same day, Crawford alleged James was “stopped, detained, and questioned, and essentially accused of impersonating an attorney.” She added, “We are asking that the Harford County Sheriff’s Office conduct a full investigation.”
In a statement posted on Facebook, the Harford County Sheriff’s Office says it’s investigating the episode.
Harford County Sheriff Jeffrey R. Gahler said James’ complaint was assigned to his department’s Office of Professional Standards “for a complete and thorough investigation. We take all complaints seriously.”
Noting the public outrage about James’ accusation, the sheriff’s office said, “We hear your concerns … As in all cases of ‘trials through social media,’ facts and the truth are often lacking, exaggerated or non-existent … the complaint we received did not mention, accuse, or infer that a deputy ‘locked up’ or ‘arrested’ anyone.”
Gahler said his office would not have further comment until the investigation is finished.
Maryland Legal Aid released a statement saying it’s “incensed at the treatment of our colleague, Mr. Rashad James, an extremely talented and dedicated civil legal aid attorney, who under MLA’s Community Lawyering Initiative, is tasked with navigating every stretch of this state to provide civil legal counsel and representation for Maryland’s poorest and most vulnerable individuals and communities.”