An unnecessary arrest Afro's publisher: Officer had legal authority to issue a citation instead.

March 01, 1996

THE ARREST AND JAILING for more than eight hours of John J. Oliver Jr., publisher of the Afro-American newspaper, for a minor traffic offense was unconscionable. The treatment of Mr. Oliver was reminiscent of those worst examples of abuse of power in law enforcement that have unfairly painted all police officers as villains in the eyes of too many African Americans.

Mr. Oliver was stopped on Feb. 20 for allegedly driving through a red light. Other officers inexplicably arrived at the scene. A computer check revealed Mr. Oliver's driver's license had been suspended. Within five minutes, Mr. Oliver says, he was handcuffed, then taken to a dirty cell where he spent a torturous eight hours waiting for his bail to be set.

Police Commissioner Thomas C. Frazier has defended the arrest. He said the officer did a computer check and found out there was a "warrant" for Mr. Oliver's arrest. "A warrant is a command of the court," Mr. Frazier said. "There was no choice for the officer. You either ignore the order of the court or comply."

Mr. Frazier later found out he was wrong. A computer check by Robert F. Sweeney, administrative judge of the state District Court, showed there was no warrant for Mr. Oliver. His license had been suspended, but state law allows a citation to be issued to someone with an invalid license. In almost all such cases, that person isn't allowed to drive but isn't detained.

Police Col. Margaret Patton said it is standard procedure for Baltimore officers to arrest anyone caught driving with a suspended license. If so, that rule should be changed. Officers already complain about the valuable time they must spend to book worse criminals.

Mr. Oliver's driving with a suspended license is not excusable, though he claims he never received notice of the action. He forgot to pay a $25 ticket on a seat-belt violation. People charged with worse, even some arrested for drunken driving, are often put into a cab and sent home rather than being thrown into jail.

Why was this well-dressed black man driving an expensive car locked up? Mr. Oliver says the arresting officer was white, but well mannered, and two black officers arrived later. He doesn't believe his race was as much a problem as some officers' tendency to follow orders like a robot when they could use their discretion. But that's not what some black kid who already views the police as his people's enemy is going to think.

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