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Harford sheriff: Racial bias allegation by attorney ‘unfounded’

Andrew Freeman, left, and Chelsea Crawford, right, of Brown, Goldstein & Levy LLP, sit with their client Rashad James, center, to announce a complaint filed on James' behalf with the Harford County Sheriff's Office. (The Daily Record / Heather Cobun)

Andrew Freeman, left, and Chelsea Crawford, right, of Brown, Goldstein & Levy LLP, sit with their client Rashad James, center, in March to announce a complaint filed on James’ behalf with the Harford County Sheriff’s Office. The sheriff’s office Tuesday said an investigation into the complaint concluded it was “unfounded.” (The Daily Record / Heather Cobun)

Representatives from the Harford County Sheriff’s Office declared an allegation of racial bias in a courthouse last month “unfounded” Tuesday, but attorneys for the Maryland Legal Aid attorney who made the complaint continue to believe their client was treated differently because of his race.

Rashad James, who is black, said that on March 6 he represented an absent client in an expungement hearing in Harford County District Court and that, after he exited the courtroom, he was stopped by a white Harford County Sheriff’s Office deputy. James said the deputy questioned his identity even though the deputy had been in the courtroom when the judge addressed James as counsel in the matter.

Sheriff Jeffrey R. Gahler said the incident was not the result of bias but rather a deputy doing his job after being called on to investigate. He called the complaint “frivolous and questionable.”

“Like any organization, there are times and there are people who fall short of what is expected,” he said. “This is not one of those times.”

But James’ attorneys, who attended the sheriff’s press conference to learn the results of the investigation, said they continue to believe racial bias played a part in how James was treated and expressed disappointment in Gahler’s reaction.

“To the extent that Sheriff Gahler disagreed that there was any mistreatment here, I think his remarks at the press conference today reflect a refusal to acknowledge how Mr. James felt,” said Chelsea Crawford, of Brown, Goldstein & Levy LLP in Baltimore.

Andrew Freeman added that they were “disappointed” with Gahler’s defensiveness and his refusal to acknowledge that racial bias exists in Harford County.

“For Sheriff Gahler to simply deny that there is any racial bias or any perception of racial bias in Harford County is part of the problem and we’re disappointed,” he said.

‘No improper conduct’

Gahler said he was limited in what he could discuss about the investigation because it constituted a personnel matter, but Michael E. Davey, an attorney for the deputy, who has not been named, provided details.

Davey said it was determined that James’ client had been flagged by a fugitive unit because of an outstanding warrant; the assistant state’s attorney contacted the deputy when James checked in ahead of the hearing because she believed he was the defendant.

After James identified himself to the court as the attorney, Davey said, the prosecutor alerted the deputy to her confusion about his identity and he conducted the investigation outside the courtroom (they dispute James’ claim that the deputy was in the courtroom when James was before the judge).

When James could only provide a North Carolina driver’s license as identification, the deputy contacted the clerk’s office to confirm there was a registered Maryland attorney with his name, after which he ended the interaction.

“There was no improper conduct,” said Davey, of Schlachman, Belsky & Weiner PA in Baltimore. “There was no information or anything indicating that this was anything having to do with an interaction based on Mr. James’ race.”

Freeman said it was “bad police work” for the sheriff’s office to identify James’ client as a fugitive days before his hearing but not be prepared to identify him in the courthouse.

“If they were really trying to apprehend a fugitive, they should have done their work properly and been prepared to identify the client if he had been there,” he said. “At no time did Mr. James identify himself as his client.”

Freeman noted that the two men do not look alike other than their race.

‘Scandalous and misleading’

Gahler was critical of James, Crawford and Freeman’s decision to publicize James’ complaint the day it was filed by holding a press conference in the Brown, Goldstein & Levy offices. He accused them of “pushing emotional buttons” with “scandalous and misleading statements” that drew statewide and national negative attention to the department.

“I would hope the people out there who prejudged this case off the initial press release … do some serious soul-searching within themselves,” he said.

Michael Montalvo, president of the Harford Deputy Sheriff’s Union, demanded an apology from James and his attorneys.

“I have a problem with the irresponsible action of Mr James’ attorneys of having a press conference immediately upon filing a complaint,” he said, accusing them of putting deputies at risk and creating a false narrative. “Mr. James was treated fairly and reasonably and the only explicit bias here is against law enforcement.”

Montalvo said the union was “deeply troubled” to have to defend a member against such an allegation.

“Racial profiling has never been an accepted practice in Harford County,” he said.

Freeman said attorneys for James do not regret how they announced the complaint and noted that since their news conference last month, the office has received more than one dozen calls from citizens who have felt discriminated against by Harford County deputies.

“Instead of using this as a learning opportunity for himself and his officers and a way to reach out to Mr. James and apologize for the way Mr. James was treated, he felt the need to deny that there is racial bias in Harford County, period,” Freeman said.

Crawford and Freeman declined to comment on any next steps.

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