A good citizen questions police action

January 20, 1996|By GREGORY KANE

Erika Gaines took her 10-month-old daughter with her to the post office the night of Dec. 9, 1993. Then she spent the next 19 hours in jail when a city police officer arrested her after she "rolled her eyes and gave lip motion," according to official reports.

The officer, Tiffany Mack, testified in a civil trial last month that she arrested and charged Gaines with disorderly conduct only after Gaines refused to hand over her driver's license and registration. Mack had stopped in the 4200 block of Nicholas Ave. Gaines -- returning to her home in the 4300 block of Nicholas Ave., with her daughter Jasmine crying from hunger -- pulled up behind her, honked her horn and then drove around the officer. Mack later stopped Gaines, and each woman gives a different reason.

Mack testified that she pulled Gaines over because the officer felt Gaines' going around her was unsafe and illegal. Gaines' mother saw the emergency lights flashing on Mack's car in the rear alley and went out to investigate. She testified that the first thing Mack said after she came outside and asked what was going on was "She [Gaines] blew her horn, went around my car rolling her eyes and making lip motion." Gaines was appalled by the reason for the stop.

"I was like, 'Oh my God! I can't believe this!' " Gaines told me. Mack asked Gaines for her license and registration. Gaines said she had started to look for them when her mother started a discussion on the philosophy of law enforcement.

"Erika, you know the police are always right even if they're wrong," her mother said.

"Miss, it ain't even like that," was Mack's response. Then Erika uttered the words she swears prompted her arrest:

"No, Mom. A policeman's job is to enforce the law, not be above the law."

I like this Erika Gaines. The woman has pluck and a keen sense of how police officers should conduct themselves in a democracy.

After her remark, Gaines claims, Mack "immediately grabbed my wrist, snatched me out of the car and said, 'You're going to jail.' " When Gaines asked why, Mack told her it was for disorderly conduct.

Gaines was handcuffed, shuttled off in a police van to the women's detention center at the Central District lockup, booked, fingerprinted and photographed for a mug shot. It was the first arrest for the Carver High School graduate, who had worked 10 years as a medical secretary.

Mack's account differed somewhat, as opposing versions of such incidents often do. Mack didn't deny the exchange but claimed she made the arrest after Gaines insisted on talking to her mother, despite the officer's repeated requests for license and registration.

But as much as you may like to believe Mack's version, there is that not-so-minor detail of what she wrote in her police report and the charging document. The failure to produce the driver's license and registration do not figure as prominently as the "rolling eyes and lip motion." In fact, Charles Byrd, Gaines' lawyer, got Mack to admit under oath she wrote nothing about failure to produce either a driver's license or registration in either document.

The civil jury found in favor of Mack -- sort of. The jurors ruled that she did not show malice in arresting Gaines and had probable cause to do so, but they wanted to award the plaintiff -- whose suit claimed, among several things, false arrest and imprisonment -- $800. When Circuit Judge Donald Gilmore asked them why, the forewoman replied that the jury felt "there was wrong on both sides."

Baltimore police, according to Gaines, were less ambiguous. An internal hearing held in last July -- the result of a spate of angry letters Gaines sent to the mayor, police officials and city legislators -- ruled in favor of Gaines. Mack was given a severe letter of reprimand and a three-day suspension, according to Gaines. City police spokesman Rob Weinhold confirmed that a hearing for Mack was held July 20, but he said he could not reveal the results.

Mack's lawyer, Bernadette Gartrell, argued that the incident could have been avoided had Gaines simply handed over her license and registration. Gartrell is a good lawyer who was doing her job, but the evidence I heard indicated that Gaines showed uncommon guts in questioning a police officer who she felt was clearly out of line.

"I'd do it the same way if I had to do it over," Gaines said. And well she should. Good citizens should question police actions they feel are objectionable. To do less would lead us to the kind of society where citizens aren't allowed to question police. It's called a police state.

Gregory P. Kane's column appears on Wednesdays and Saturdays.

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