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Baltimore County state’s attorney to face first primary challenge in 15 years from lawyer and Democratic activist

Attorney Robbie Leonard said he will run against Baltimore County’s incumbent State’s Attorney Scott Shellenberger in next June’s Democratic primary, marking the first time Shellenberger has been challenged in a primary since he was first elected in 2006.

Leonard, an attorney of 13 years who currently serves as secretary of the Maryland Democratic Party, sees a changing political tide in Baltimore County when it comes to criminal justice reform — one that accelerated in the wake of national protests last year after George Floyd, a Black man, was killed by Derek Chauvin, a white Minneapolis police officer. Chauvin was later convicted of second-degree murder.

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“Baltimore County has changed a lot since 2006,” Leonard said. “It’s time for his office to change.”

Leonard, who previously worked as the assistant public defender in Baltimore City’s Office of the Public Defender, said that while county officials like House Speaker Adrienne A. Jones and County Council chair Julian Jones have pushed for police reform in recent months, Shellenberger has failed to successfully prosecute police officers accused of misconduct.

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Shellenberger contends he’s prosecuted 19 cases against police officers, including charging a former president of the Fraternal Order of Police Lodge with second degree assault for striking a cabdriver.

In two cases where Shellenberger charged police with second-degree murder and second-degree assault, jurors acquitted the officers.

But in other instances, Leonard said, Shellenberger has declined to pursue charges against on-duty police officers who have killed civilians, such as the officer who fatally shot Eric Sopp during a traffic stop in 2019. Sopp’s mother had called police because her son had threatened himself with an ice pick and may have been driving while intoxicated.

“I think we strike a very fair balance between all those elements,” Shellenberger said. “Making sure the police are held to the same standards that others are, too.”

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Leonard, 39, said he also takes issue with Shellenberger’s handling of sexual assault cases. Shellenberger and others in his office are facing a federal lawsuit that argues they violated a woman’s First Amendment rights by trying to stop her from filing sexual assault charges on her own after they declined to prosecute her case.

“We want you to feel safe in calling the police for help,” Leonard said of how his state’s attorney’s office would function. “We want you to feel safe when you’re in the courtroom.”

Shellenberger, 62, was elected in 2006 following longtime county State’s Attorney Sandra A. O’Connor, a Republican. He won a contested reelection in 2010.

Shellenberger began his career as a law clerk in O’Connor’s office, rising through the ranks to division chief of the sexual assault and child abuse unit before leaving after 11 years in 1993 to join a law firm.

“I think it’s important that all people have their day in court for all crimes,” Shellenberger said.

And he said he takes a “hard line” approach to prosecuting violent offenses.

“I really just don’t think that a person who has never been a prosecutor can lead a prosecution office that has 61 prosecutors,” Shellenberger said. “You’ve got to know how to do it; and I know how to do it.”

Leonard most recently assisted in representing the Unemployed Workers’ Union in a lawsuit against Gov. Larry Hogan and Secretary of Labor Tiffany Robinson to secure federal pandemic unemployment benefits. He’s successfully represented hundreds of plaintiffs in lead-poisoning lawsuits. Leonard and his wife founded the Leonard & McCliggott Law Group last year.

He’s also worked in several counties, he said, experience that would aid him as the county’s top lawyer even though he hasn’t prosecuted criminal cases.

Leonard has twice run unsuccessfully for office, including narrowly losing a bid for a state senate seat against Republican Sen. Chris West in 2018.

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