Having recently interviewed the British statistician David Hand about probability principles, I suppose I should be willing to accept the following: Two men named James Elmer Bailey, both born on Oct. 15, 1962, resided in the Annapolis area at the time a woman accused one of them of punching her in the face.
Hard as that might be to comprehend, probability theorists like Hand say that such a thing is far more likely than most of us believe. Among their many remarkable findings: Only 23 people need assemble in a room before it becomes more than 50 percent probable that two of them have the same birth date.
Given that, I guess Judge John P. McKenna's findings in the "Wait-What?" case — a false-arrest complaint against three Annapolis police officers in Anne Arundel County District Court — don't seem so far-fetched.
As reported in my last column, this case goes back to March 2007, when a woman told an Annapolis police corporal that she had been punched in the face by a man whose sexual advances she resisted.
According to court documents, the woman described the man as black, with brown eyes and black hair. She gave his name as James Elmer Bailey and provided his address and even his birth date.
A warrant was issued for Bailey's arrest. While searching databases, a police dispatcher found a James Elmer Bailey residing in the Annapolis area. But he was white.
That's why I call this a "Wait-What?" case: It's a strange one; you have to stop now and then to make sure you're catching all the facts.
"At the times relevant to this case," McKenna found, "two individuals resided in the Annapolis area, each with the name James Elmer Bailey and each with the reported birth date of October 15, 1962; however, one such individual was white, and the other was black. Further, the physical description of a height of 5'5" and weight of 145 lbs. pertained to the black James Elmer Bailey, while the height of 6'3" and weight of 195 lbs. described the white James Elmer Bailey."
Wait. There's more.
The police corporal changed the description of Bailey on the arrest warrant, turning a short, black suspect into a tall, white one.
According to McKenna's findings, the corporal said he did this on the advice of an assistant state's attorney and a District Court commissioner. But, alas, the corporal could not recall the names of either person; we don't know who gave him such bad advice.
Three years went by before anyone acted on the warrant — another odd fact about this case. In the summer of 2010, two Annapolis police officers picked up the warrant and went looking for James Elmer Bailey. They found him in Edgewater, outside Annapolis.
But the Bailey they found was not the one described by the victim. It was the other one — a white man with gray hair and blue eyes, 6-foot-3 and 195 pounds.
That Bailey told the officers they had the wrong man. Nevertheless, they handcuffed him and took him to the Annapolis Police Department.
There, the officers quickly realized that the original warrant had been altered; the man they had in custody was the wrong Bailey.
So they let him go. They didn't even fingerprint him.
But Bailey was unhappy; he was embarrassed by the scene at his house and, more importantly, he later found his connection to the 2007 assault showing up on background checks when he applied for jobs. The criminal charges also appeared on his credit reports and his name was on a list of outstanding warrants published at least three times in a local newspaper. (Through a family connection, Bailey finally found a job last year as a maintenance man.)
Meanwhile, no man fitting the original description was ever arrested or identified by police.
So, in 2011, Tall Bailey sued the corporal and two officers for making a false arrest and violating his civil rights. McKenna presided over the trial in February 2013.
The judge took another 13 months to issue his 30-page ruling.
On Monday, he ordered the city of Annapolis to pay $4,500 damages for the police corporal's violation of Bailey's rights through the altering of the suspect description. The judge said a court commissioner should have made "a new finding of fact that there was probable cause to believe that the white James Elmer Bailey committed [the] assault," and there was no record of that.
Claims against the officers who took Bailey into custody were dismissed.
The corporal was promoted to sergeant last spring.
I contacted the Annapolis police chief's office about this. I was referred to an assistant city attorney. The attorney said he had not read McKenna's opinion and had no comment.
Bailey, meanwhile, is not pleased. He says the mix-up has had a greater impact on his life than the judge recognized. The damages are "not much, considering what I've been through. And I'm pushing a broom and the fella who caused this got a promotion."
Dan Rodricks' column appears each Tuesday, Thursday and Sunday. He is the host of "Midday" on WYPR-FM.