A black Maryland lawyer who was detained in court earlier this month by a deputy who thought he was a suspect masquerading as a lawyer filed a complaint with the Harford County Sheriff’s Office this week, alleging the action was racially motivated.
The lawyer, Rashad James, who works for Maryland Legal Aid’s community lawyering initiative, has asked the Sheriff’s Department to begin an internal investigation and to record the complaint in the deputy’s personnel file.
Mr. James appeared at a hearing at Harford County District Court on March 6 on behalf of a client, who was not present. A sheriff’s deputy approached Mr. James in the hallway after the hearing and called him by his client’s name, according to the complaint.
Mr. James corrected him and provided his driver’s license to prove his identity, but the deputy was not convinced. He directed Mr. James to an interview room and detained him for 10 to 15 minutes while Mr. James made phone calls to confirm his identity, his lawyers said.
“It was a series of events that we firmly believe none of which would have occurred had Mr. James been white,” Andrew D. Freeman, one of Mr. James’s lawyers, said.
The experience was “surreal,” Mr. James said on Thursday. “The entire time I made sure that I stayed calm, that I was respectful, that I complied.”
The Sheriff’s Department is investigating Mr. James’s complaint.
“We take all complaints seriously,” Sheriff Jeffrey R. Gahler said in a statement, adding that the department would “take immediate and appropriate administrative action” if it found the complaint had merit.
Since the complaint was filed on Tuesday, Mr. James’s lawyers have received phone calls and emails from nearly a dozen people with stories of racial discrimination in Harford County, in northeastern Maryland.
“I think this is just another example of law enforcement in particular viewing black males suspiciously, second-guessing them or presuming that they’re up to no good when they’re doing rather ordinary things,” said Chelsea Crawford, another lawyer for Mr. James.
She referred to the episode as “lawyering while black.”
Mr. James’s situation is the latest example of black people being detained or having the police called on them while engaging in everyday activities, such as sitting in a Starbucks or leaving an Airbnb home.
Black professionals have also spoken out about encountering bias while on the job and having their credentials questioned. Last October, a Delta flight attendant asked a black doctor who was trying to help a passenger in distress if she was “actually an M.D.”
Mr. James said he was ready to shift his focus back to his clients. He said that nothing like this had happened to him before in the courtroom and that he felt it was important to tell his story.
“By speaking up, I hope that it will encourage other persons to speak up,” he said.