While reading court documents recently, I had one of those "Wait-What?" moments. That's where you're reading along, or listening to an explanation, and you suddenly say, incredulously: "Wait. What?" That is, please stop and tell me what I just read or heard was correct — that, in the case at hand, a District Court commissioner told an Annapolis police corporal to change the reported description of a man wanted for first-degree assault.
Absurd as that sounds, this apparent transgression is described in the city of Annapolis' official responses to a false arrest case.
According to court documents, this is what happened:
On March 14, 2007, an Annapolis woman reported being assaulted in the face two days earlier by a man who had made unwanted sexual advances. She described the man as black, with brown eyes and black hair, 5 feet 5 and 145 pounds. She gave his name as James E. Bailey and provided his address.
A warrant was issued for his arrest a week later.
Three years went by before anything happened, and what happened was very strange.
Acting on the 2007 warrant, two Annapolis police officers arrested a James E. Bailey, but this Bailey was white with gray hair and blue eyes, 6 feet 3 and 195 pounds, and he did not live at the address stated on the warrant.
So how did a Tall Bailey get arrested for a crime that a Short Bailey was alleged to have committed?
Documents in the false arrest case, filed by Tall Bailey in 2011, describe the following scenario:
Back when the warrant was first issued, the Annapolis Police Department's "dispatch staff" searched a database for James E. Bailey. The only one found was Tall Bailey.
When the "dispatch staff" reported the discrepancy in the suspect's description to the investigating corporal, the corporal sought advice from the Anne Arundel County state's attorney's office. A prosecutor, who apparently did not know what to do, sent the corporal to a District Court commissioner.
In Maryland, court commissioners are not judges — they are not even required to have a law degree or previous legal experience — but they have powers to issue warrants and set bail. I'm guessing that the commissioner in this case did not have the benefit of a law school education because this is what happened next:
"A District Court commissioner directed [the corporal] to amend the Application for Statement of Charges, the Statement of Charges, and the arrest warrant by hand to match the information given to [the corporal] by dispatch."
Again, that's from the city's responses to questions in the false arrest case, and that's where I had my "Wait-What?" moment.
A court commissioner told a police corporal to change the race, height, weight, hair and eye color of a suspect in an assault case?
Three years later, this warrant with the altered suspect description was still around. Two officers picked it up in July 2010. They realized the address was no good; the public housing development where James E. Bailey (the short one) supposedly lived in 2007 had been abandoned. But somehow, the officers managed to find Bailey (the tall one) at another address, this one in Edgewater.
Despite his I'm-not-your-guy protests, Bailey was handcuffed and taken to Annapolis.
But it didn't take long for the officers to realize that something was wrong with the statement of charges.
According to the city, one of its officers "noticed that the revision reflected that a white male was to be arrested but that it had originally indicated that a black male was to be arrested. ... Neither officer knew when, how or why the arrest warrant had been amended."
The officers released Bailey. He says he was at the police station only 15 or 20 minutes.
So I asked why he's pressing a case in Anne Arundel District Court, claiming false arrest, false imprisonment and violations of due process, asking $30,000 in damages on each count.
"Because this shouldn't happen to nobody else," Bailey said, adding quickly that the mix-up had cost him employment in the construction trade. "Every time I applied for a job, I'd go for the interview and it'd come up that I was wanted for assault," he said. (He finally found a job last year, he says, as a maintenance man for rental properties.)
Bailey's name has appeared on a list of "unserved warrants" a few times in a local newspaper, says his Towson attorney, Jane Santoni, and Bailey says that happened again recently. Meanwhile, no Bailey fitting the original description was ever arrested or identified by authorities.
The city attorney representing the Annapolis Police Department said he could not comment while the case is pending. The trial on Bailey's complaint took place in February 2013, and, as of Monday, Judge John P. McKenna still had not made a ruling. Wait. What? That's right, the trial was more than a year ago.
(Late word: An unsigned note from McKenna's state email account arrived Monday at 5:04 pm bearing the words: "The opinion was issued earlier this morning." More on this soon.)
Dan Rodricks' column appears each Tuesday, Thursday and Sunday. He is the host of "Midday" on WYPR-FM.