Somewhere in the wide world exists a certain Jawan Johnson, who has a warrant out for his arrest so he can be brought to testify in a Washington burglary case.
There also exists a certain Jawon Johnson — with an "O" — a Baltimorean who is not a witness in a burglary case.
But somewhere in the databanks of a computer tracking police paperwork, the two Johnsons became confused in spite of the differing vowels in their first names. So when a Havre de Grace police officer pulled Jawon Johnson over on Pulaski Highway on Saturday night, he thought he had the wayward witness in hand.
It was a mistake. But due to the quirks of the interstate extradition process and the slow crawl of weekend paperwork, the 18-year-old, who had stopped to see a friend in Harford County while on holiday break from college, couldn't leave.
"They arrested me and took me back to the station and showed me a picture of who the guy actually was," the West Virginia State University freshman said. "It wasn't me, but they said they still had to hold me until the marshals came and got me."
To the frustration of Johnson and his family, he was taken to the Harford County Detention Center and spent the next three nights in a cell. Because the warrant was issued in Washington, U.S. marshals had to take Johnson to federal court in Baltimore.
David Lutz, a deputy U.S. marshal, is a friend of Johnson's family and went to the jail Monday to drive the unlucky teen to Baltimore. Although they knew each another, Lutz said, he had to follow the normal protocols for transporting a prisoner: Johnson had to ride in handcuffs in the passenger seat.
"He's an upstanding young citizen," Lutz said. But he added: "Even if we trust the person or believe their story, you have to treat everybody the same."
On Tuesday, federal defender Patrick Kent took up the case, working to make sure the authorities confirmed their error and let Johnson go. The marshals ran his fingerprints and took his photo to send to the prosecutors in Washington, who confirmed he was not the person they were looking for.
The man sought in the warrant remained at large late Tuesday.
A small crowd of Johnson's friends and family arrived at the court in the afternoon to watch the final steps of the process. On hearing that he would be released from the sixth-floor lockup, they crammed into an elevator to get there — only to be sent back to the courtroom, where they learned Johnson did not actually need to see a judge at all.
Finally the word came that Johnson was free and waiting outside. The West Virginia State football player said he had taken the whole thing in stride.
"As long as I'm out, I'm perfectly fine," he said. "I'm happy to see my family. I just want to enjoy the rest of my vacation at home."
But Kent said it was "incredibly distressing" that the situation took so long to straighten out. And Johnson's mother, Juanita Johnson, said the nights her son was locked up were sleepless for her.
"It was the worst experience ever," she said. "I didn't have any information about what was going on with my child."
Jeff Gilpin, a spokesman for Havre de Grace police, said the department honestly thought it had the right person. Besides their similar names, the two Johnsons had the same birthday. A quick comparison of a photo on the warrant and Jawon Johnson's driver's license seemed to match up, he said.
"When you have similar photos, name and date of birth ... the stars looked aligned," Gilpin said. "We honestly thought everything was on the up and up."
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