A black attorney filed a complaint with a Maryland sheriff's office after he says a deputy racially profiled him by questioning whether he was a lawyer and accusing him of being a suspect.
Rashad James, an attorney for Maryland Legal Aid, was in Harford County District Court earlier this month representing a client who was not present at an expungement hearing when a sheriff's deputy allegedly detained him, the complaint says.
James told reporters Tuesday that the incident was "surreal" and that the deputy essentially asked him to prove that he was a lawyer. He said it was the first time he had represented a client at the courthouse.
"If Mr. James were white, this would not have happened. He would have been able to walk out of that courtroom without any question about who he was and who he was representing," James' attorney Chelsea J. Crawford said at the news conference.
James and his attorneys called the incident a case of "racial discrimination" and are now asking for a full investigation by the sheriff's office. They characterized the incident as "lawyering while black" – the latest in a string of incidents in which black Americans going about their lives have police called on them or are questioned by authorities.
Asked why they thought the incident occurred because of race, attorney Andrew D. Freeman said, "we just see no other explanation."
The Harford County Sheriff's Office received the complaint earlier this week and assigned it to the Office of Professional Standards "for a complete and thorough investigation," sheriff Jeffrey R. Gahler said in a statement.
"If those claims are founded and violations of agency policy are revealed, we will take immediate and appropriate administrative action," Gahler said.
Starbucks while black: Starbucks victims speak out, express hope their arrests inspire change
The alleged incident occurred March 6 after James was successful in the expungement hearing on behalf of his client, according to the complaint. James, an active member of the Maryland Bar, says the judge acknowledged him as his client's counsel in court.
However, James was not able to reach his client, who is also black, and did not know police had a warrant for his client's arrest, the complaint says.
As James was leaving, the deputy addressed James with his client's name and asked to speak with him, the complaint alleges. James corrected the officer but was asked to show his ID, the complaint says.
That's when James was brought to an interview room in the courthouse and asked whether he had a business card or Maryland Bar ID card, neither of which a lawyer is required to carry and James did not have at the time, the complaint says.
Mowing the lawn while black: Outrage over neighbor calling police on grass-cutting kids helps 12-year-old's summer business
The deputy was "between Mr. James and the door; a bailiff joined them and stood in the doorway. Mr. James did not feel free to leave," the complaint says.
The officer then made two calls, and James was free to leave some 10 to 15 minutes after the incident began, according to the complaint.
"He was accused of not being an attorney after he has worked so hard in law school and with Maryland Legal Aid to be an upstanding lawyer in our bar," Crawford said.
Golfing while black: Golf club twice called police after black women told they were playing too slow
"Maryland Legal Aid is incensed at the treatment of our colleague," the non-profit law firm said in a statement. "We stand behind Rashad today, and behind others who have experienced racial profiling and discrimination – a threat to their basic human and civil rights – with the objective to prevent an incident like this from ever happening again."
James told reporters he's never heard of a situation like this happening to a colleague or another attorney.
"The facts of the situation speak for themselves," James said.
Crawford called the lengths to which the officer went "excessive and discriminatory in nature."
"This is another example or another instance of the suspicion and second guessing that attaches to black men specifically," she added.
Napping while black: Black Yale student reported to police for sleeping in her dorm
Follow USA TODAY's Ryan Miller on Twitter @RyanW_Miller
This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: 'Lawyering while black': Attorney says deputy profiled him as a suspect at courthouse