With two native New Yorkers on trial and the community mayor of Harlem on hand to take a stand against what she called racial profiling, a Baltimore County District Court judge delivered his assessment yesterday of a traffic stop that left a police officer and a black motorist struggling on the shoulder of Interstate 95 within inches of the traffic.
In the end, Judge Edward P. Murphy convicted the two men of most of the charges against them, sentencing one to a year's probation and the other to 30 days in jail and probation.
Murphy also bemoaned the behavior that he said transformed a relatively minor traffic offense -- failing to fasten a license plate to a newly purchased 1995 Mercedes Benz -- into a dangerous situation that left at risk the car's three occupants, and the two Maryland Transportation Authority Police officers questioning them.
The judge placed blame for that on the car's driver, Mark A. Dobbins, 32, and his brother-in-law, Levi Woods, 36, who was in the passenger seat. Dobbins' wife, Wanda, who was in the back seat, was not charged.
"Since the first day we took testimony, I've thought all along about this case and why it developed to the point it did," Murphy said during a hearing in Catonsville. Had Dobbins answered the officer's questions about when he moved to Maryland, the judge said, "none of us would be here today."
Depending on the answer, Murphy said, Dobbins might have received an additional traffic citation -- for not transferring his driver's license from New York to Maryland. "But it would not have escalated to where you all could have been killed," he said.
The traffic stop occurred about 11:45 a.m. March 11 on southbound Interstate 95 near the Beltway south of Baltimore. Two officers pulled Dobbins from the car when he refused to get out, according to court documents. The officers asked him to get out after he repeatedly told them he had "just moved" to Maryland but did not elaborate, documents show.
Dobbins, of Brooklyn, N.Y., was convicted of second-degree assault, resisting arrest, obstructing and hindering a police officer, carrying a concealed deadly weapon (a lead pipe) and failing to properly maintain and fasten a vehicle registration plate. The judge found Dobbins not guilty of reckless endangerment and of failing to obey a reasonable and lawful order of a police officer.
Explaining that Dobbins' clean criminal record weighed heavily on his decision, Murphy sentenced him to two years in prison but suspended the sentence. The judge ordered him, instead, to serve a year of supervised probation in New York and pay a $200 fine.
Woods, of Essex, was convicted of obstructing and hindering a police officer and of carrying a concealed deadly weapon (a lead pipe). The judge found him not guilty of failing to obey a police officer's order.
Noting Woods' prior criminal convictions -- for grand larceny in 1988 and defrauding an innkeeper in 1998 -- the judge sentenced Woods to 18 months in jail, suspending all but one month of that term. The judge also directed Woods to pay $155 in fines and fees.
Joseph Murtha, an attorney for Dobbins, said he will appeal the convictions and will seek the assistance of civil rights organizations that have expressed interest in the case.
Murtha told the judge that in all his years as a prosecutor and defense attorney, he had "never seen anyone treated as maliciously" as Dobbins.
The Queen Mother Dr. Delois Blakely, the community mayor of Harlem and president of the nonprofit New Future Foundation, also said that treatment spurred her to stand behind Dobbins and Woods.
"We felt it was unjust, what happened to them," she told the judge. "It seemed to be to us, your honor, that it was racial profiling."