Deputy at Maryland Courthouse Refuses to Believe Black Attorney Is a Lawyer, Detains Him and Says He Must Be the Client

An officer in the Harford County Sheriff’s Office is said to have accused a Black attorney in Maryland of being his client who was impersonating a lawyer. The attorney says it was racial profiling and now the sheriff’s office is investigating.

Rashad James, an attorney for Maryland Legal Aid’s community lawyering initiative, filed a complaint with the Harford County Sheriff’s Office Tuesday, March 26. In a press release issued by James’ attorneys from the Brown, Goldstein & Levy law firm, the lawyers explained their client was detained after appearing in court on March 6 to represent an absent client, who also is Black.

Rashad James

Rashad James, an attorney with Maryland Legal Aid, alleges he was racially profiled by a sheriff’s deputy. (WBAL-TV screenshot)

Despite being in court, the officer approached James after the hearing at which James stated for the record that he was the attorney and was granted an expungement for his client. The firm’s complaint and press release state the officer addressed James as the client, to which James clarified that he was the lawyer, not the client. When the officer asked for his license, James obliged. But the officer, according to the news release, was “unwilling to accept this clear evidence of Mr. James’ identity.”

James was then walked to an interview room, the news release states. After about 10 minutes of phone calls and questioning, the complaint and release say the officer let James go.

“While going through the incident, it was sort of a very surreal moment,” James told WBA-TV 11 News.

“At no time did I feel in danger. I knew, regardless, that I wasn’t in the wrong,” he added.

“If Mr. James were white, the officer would not have doubted that Mr. James was an
attorney, would not have questioned his identity, and certainly would not have detained Mr. James after seeing his driver’s license,” said Andrew D. Freeman, one of James’ attorneys, in a statement. “There is no plausible explanation other than racial bias.”

The complaint asked the sheriff’s office to conduct a full investigation and record the incident in the officer’s personnel file. It also requests sensitivity and implicit bias training along with an apology for James. This was the first time James, who was the sole Black attorney in the courtroom, represented a client in Harford County, according to The Baltimore Sun.

“This is actually the first time this has occurred to me, and I do not know of any colleagues who have had a similar experience,” James said in an interview with the publication. “In the moment … I guess it was just one of those unexpected things that I just did not anticipate.”

The Harford County Sheriff’s Office has since launched an investigation, as it detailed in a statement Tuesday.

“The Harford County Sheriff’s Office is aware of these accusations, as we received a formal complaint this afternoon,” the March 26 statement from Sheriff Jeffrey R. Gahler read. “As with all complaints, the complaint filed on behalf of Mr. James was promptly assigned to the Harford County Sheriff’s Office – Office of Professional Standards for a complete and thorough investigation. We take all complaints seriously.”

The same day the complaint was filed, the Maryland Legal Aid released a statement saying it stands behind James “and behind others who have experienced racial profiling and discrimination.”

“Maryland Legal Aid is 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. That includes in Harford County, where this deeply disturbing incident unfolded.”

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