Taya Graham: Hello. My name is Taya Graham, and welcome to the Police Accountability Report. As I always try to make clear, this show has a single purpose: holding the politically powerful institution of policing accountable. And to do so, we don’t just focus on the bad behavior of individual cops. Instead, we examine the system that makes bad policing possible. And today we’re going to focus on a case so egregious, so sloppy and so potentially damaging, we’ve been following it for several months, and now have some breaking news to report on today.
But before I get started, I want you watching to know that if you have evidence of police misconduct, please email it to us privately at firstname.lastname@example.org, and we might be able to investigate for you. And of course, you can always message me directly at @tayasbaltimore on Facebook or Twitter, and please like, share, and comment on our videos. It really does help us. And you know I read your comments and that I appreciate them. And if you can, hit the donate button, click below. We have a Patreon and we have some special goodies for our Patreon family. Okay, we’ve got all that out of the way.
Now, today we’re going to unpack a case that exemplifies all that is wrong with America’s criminal justice system. A set of charges so damaging it calls into question all the assertions made by politicians and mainstream media that our current law enforcement-industrial complex is a solution for anything. The case focuses on a person you might remember. Her name is Michelle Lucas, and she was one of the stars of our documentary, The Friendliest Town, a film that recounts the firing of the first Black police chief of a small town on Maryland’s Lower Eastern Shore called Pocomoke City.
But the reason we reported on her a few months ago is because the hardworking grandmother of four and community activist was facing two felony counts of, wait for it, passing counterfeit bills. So how did this happen? Well, because Michelle did a favor for a co-worker. She was delivering pizzas for a Pocomoke restaurant when a cook asked her to pick up a bottle of tequila. To pay for it, he handed her a $100 bill. On her way back from her delivery, she paid for the liquor, gave it to the cook and went back to work. But two hours later, when she returned to the restaurant, she was greeted by a parking lot full of cops. I’ll let Michelle explain the reason.
Michelle Lucas: Two hours later, I’m coming back to the restaurant and there’s three sheriffs and two Pocomoke cops parked there, and I thought, “Oh my God, they’ve been robbed. I was the last car there.” And he said, “No, the money you used was counterfeit.” I said, “It wasn’t my money. It’s the guy’s money inside. I don’t even drink.” He told him, yes, it was his money. He didn’t know it was counterfeit. The boss had gave it to him the night before. And they came back out. And Detective Burke said, “He says it was his money, but we need you to write down everything that happened.” I did, they left. I thought I did–I know it’s not you… But I thought I obviously was a witness for them.
Taya Graham: As Michelle recounts, the cook confessed to giving her the counterfeit bill. Two months passed, and Michelle thought the matter had been settled. But then one day she received a call from a Somerset County sheriff. Let’s listen to what happened next.
Michelle Lucas: Detective Burke calls me, and he says, “I need you to come to the sheriff’s station. I need to talk to you.” And says, “I want you to come around back.” I said, “Well, why are we going around back?” He said, “Well, I just need you to come around back.” I drive around back and it’s like eight, nine o’clock at night, so it’s really dark back there. It’s dimly lit. And he comes over to the car, he said, “I have paperwork for you to sign.” I said, “Do you want me to go inside?” You know, where I could see? And he was like, “No.” And I said, “Well, did you want to get in my car or me get in your car?” He was like, “No,” and he hands me the papers.
And I’m looking at them, but I can’t really see them because it’s dark. I turn my overhead light on, but it’s not a bright overhead light. I give it to him. Then I said to him, “Will I be sitting up at the table with the state’s attorney or will I be in the courtroom until I’m called?” Well, that’s when he said, “No, you’ll be with your lawyer.” And then I said, “Witnesses get lawyers?” And then he would say, “Hon, you’re getting charged with a felony.” And then I was like, “What? I have never in my whole life, whole life, not even as a teenager with my mom, been in any trouble.” So when he’s telling me I’m getting charged with a felony, my mind… I blanked out.
Taya Graham: And so, Michelle was facing two felony counts of knowingly, and I emphasize the word knowingly because it will be important later, passing a counterfeit bill despite no evidence that she knew it was counterfeit. Despite the fact that the cook confessed to passing her the bill, despite the fact she had no criminal record, the public defender advised her to plead guilty. That’s right, guilty. Which she did. And the consequences were devastating for her. Let’s listen.
Michelle Lucas: I can barely… I had lost prior to this almost 80 pounds. I’ve gained most of it back. I’m crying constantly. I’m scared to take money. I don’t even want to go to the store for nothing, for nobody. Not for myself. I’m scared to spend even a dollar, because what if it’s counterfeit?
Taya Graham: After we reviewed the charging documents and the law, we got in touch with the public defender’s office and asked them why they counseled Michelle to plead guilty with so little evidence she was, in fact, guilty. Actually, the documents we reviewed had exculpatory evidence, and she did not know the bill was counterfeit because the cook admitted to passing it to her. We also made calls to the Somerset County sheriff who conducted the investigation, asking him the same questions.
After our inquiry, the head of the public defender’s office took over her case and filed a motion to withdraw her guilty plea, which a judge accepted. But now we have breaking news about the status of the charges. And to share it with you, I’m joined by my reporting partner, Stephen Janis.
Stephen, thank you so much for joining me.
Stephen Janis: Taya, thanks for having me. I appreciate it.
Taya Graham: So, Stephen, there have been updates in the case. Can you tell us what happened?
Stephen Janis: Yes. Taya, the charges have been dropped. The charges against Michelle Lucas have been dropped. The public defender called her today and told her the charges were dropped by the Somerset County circuit judge. Let’s listen to what Michelle had to say.
Michelle Lucas: Okay. So the lawyer called me at 9:00 in the morning and told me that we were going to be going to a jury trial, and that it would be on the 21st of this month. Then, four hours later, he called me and told me all charges have been dropped.
Stephen Janis: How’d you feel?
Michelle Lucas: I was so happy, I started crying. And I can’t thank you and Taya enough, because when you exposed what happened to me, it caused them to have to reevaluate everything. And then the head of the public defender’s contacted me, and things started changing and circling. And I guess them knowing that the limelight was on them, they just changed everything.
Stephen Janis: So yeah, the charges have been dropped and, of course, we were hoping this would happen, but, of course, it’s been a real ordeal for her. So let’s listen a little bit about what she went through and how this has affected her.
Michelle Lucas: Oh, my god. Since everything happened, just the sight of a police officer, any police officer, I would burst into tears, shaking, where I used to see them and go up and say hi. If I saw them, I was turning, making detours just so I didn’t pass any of them. I was nervous. I didn’t want to go into stores. I didn’t want to handle any money at all, not even a dollar. So my boyfriend and my daughter had to do all my shopping and stuff, because I was scared to touch anything, and I was petrified of cops.
Stephen Janis: And so, Taya, as you can see, this has been quite an ordeal for Michelle, but now it seems it’s finally coming to an end.
Taya Graham: What did we discover about her case during our reporting?
Stephen Janis: Well, the thing that’s amazing about it is Maryland law is so clear. All you got to do is Google it, and it says that you must knowingly pass a bill. If you read the statement of probable cause, it says that the cook gave Michelle the bill, so there’s no way it could be knowingly. The freaking detective in his own statement of probable cause had exculpatory information in it that showed that she was innocent, and yet they still went forward with charges.
Taya Graham: So we did have some concerns that these charges were retaliation for her support of Chief Sewell. What do you think?
Stephen Janis: Well, as we know, Chief Sewell was very popular in Pocomoke. He had reduced crime through community policing and Michelle was one of his biggest advocates. Let’s listen to what she had to say about the fact that this had been retaliation.
Michelle Lucas: I looked in my rear view mirror, and across the street from our house was a police car. I just started shaking. I was crying, I got so upset I started throwing up. My daughter’s like, “Mom, they’re not here for you.” And I’m like, “They are, they are.” Then I looked in my mirror and he was actually walking down our driveway. They were there, but some woman that fit my description that had a vehicle like mine had gotten beaten up, and they were just doing a well-check on me. It was actually one of my cop friends, and I was crying so hard. And he was actually surprised to see me like that, because he’s known me for couple of years, and you know…
Stephen Janis: And it’s important to understand the connection here, because the detective who charged Michelle was also Worcester County sheriff. So the Worcester County sheriff was subject to the EEOC complaints by Kelvin Sewell. So obviously you can’t rule out retaliation. So I think it’s clear, it’s something we have to consider. Retaliation might’ve been part of these charges.
Taya Graham: Now, I’m going to take off my reporter’s hat for a minute and try to simply work through what we just reported. Not so much because I have more to say about this case than any of the others we’ve reported on, but because I think there’s a deeply human component of this story that cannot be overlooked. So instead of simply sharing my thoughts, I’m going to address this to the Somerset County sheriff’s office who conducted the investigation. I’m going to ask them a question. Do you realize what you did here? I mean, the law is clear. You must knowingly pass a bill, not just pass it. Your own investigation, as meager as it was, uncovered the fact she did not know. So why would you choose to charge her? And I have some more questions for you. Did you ever do an investigation into the source of the bill? The cook said it was paid to him from the restaurant. Did you ever ask them where they got it from?
Did you refer this case to the secret service or FBI, who generally handle these types of cases? Did you question the owner of the restaurant? Do you know where the cook is who gave her the bill? Because we’ve learned he no longer works there and cannot be located. The reason why I’m asking these questions is that the consequences for Michelle would have been devastating if her guilty plea had not been withdrawn. And I wonder if you considered that before you almost consigned her to living the life of a convicted felon.
So how exactly is this devastating? Well, let me acquaint you with a uniquely US phenomenon known as the great American felony trap. What is this? Well, it’s basically the result of a philosophy in this country, that being guilty of a crime, regardless of circumstances, makes you essentially a non-citizen. That serving your sentence or doing your time isn’t enough, because punishment should be eternal.
So how does that work? Well, once you’re convicted, there are a variety of less visible punishments than simply spending time in a cell that continue to be enforced, sometimes for the rest of your life. For example, if you’re convicted of a drug crime, your access to educational aid and student loans can be suspended for years. Your right to vote is suspended while you serve out your sentence, and in some states, you may not be eligible to vote again for years. She would, like most felons, have trouble getting a job and be ineligible for many types of jobs, like teaching or truck driving. No matter if she was a model prisoner or not, she would have to pay countless fines and court fees. And along with all of these, she would probably end up working in prison for less than a dollar an hour. But that’s not the end of it, not hardly.
Because while she was denied access to her family, voting, and education, she would be charged outrageous fees to make phone calls. She would be separated from her family and grandchildren. And most of all, even after paying her so-called debt to society, she would be branded for life as an ex-con or felon.
And all of this because of you and your lackluster investigation. All because you seemingly ignored some of the very basic aspects of the law in how to complete a competent investigation and uncover the truth. Which is what you, the members of law enforcement, always claim is your overarching goal as you bask in the adulation of an adoring mainstream media, and the often overaccommodating political elite.
To really understand this phenomenon, I would recommend you read this book. It’s called Getting Tough: Welfare and Imprisonment in 1970s America. It recounts how this country swapped out spending on programs like housing aid and food supplements for prison and cops, and how that transition fueled the largest experiment in mass incarceration in the history of civilization. In fact, there are statistics in the book that encapsulate the consequences of this policy shift quite adroitly. In the 1970s, the country spent almost twice as much on food aid and housing assistance as it did on prisons and cops. But by the 1990s, those numbers had literally swapped places, with US spending twice as much on incarceration as the aforementioned social programs.
The point is, the attempt to turn a hardworking grandmother into a lifelong second class citizen is part of a broader effort to expand the powers of law enforcement to suit the needs of America’s great inequality machine. Our addiction to cops and prisons has less to do with safety and more to do with the ideologies and politics of maintaining poverty and bolstering billionaires.
I mean, if just one cop can almost consign an innocent person to a lifetime of misery and exclusion, what can a system with hundreds of thousands of people with the same power and little accountability do to the rest of us? What happens to a system of governance if hundreds, if not thousands, of cases like Michelle’s go unexamined. How many fake felons does this careless system create–innocent people consigned to pay the state for life and support a system that cares little for justice or the people it purports to serve? Well, I can say this. A system like this, if left unchecked, will have little resemblance to a government run for the people, by the people. Instead, we’re left with a way of life where the few live off the injustice levied against the many.
We had to add some breaking news developments to Michelle’s case. As we were preparing the show for airing, we received an alarming call from Michelle. She was absolutely beside herself. Sheriffs showed up with papers, first at her home, and then later at her place of business. And the Somerset County sheriff’s office has charged her again with knowingly passing a counterfeit bill. These felony charges come after the case was officially closed by prosecutors. We had Michelle contact the public defender, and he confirmed that these charges are, in fact, dropped. So the sheriff had simply served her with, as best we can tell, a bogus summons to a non-existent case. But more importantly, this development confirms our contention that not only is this case retaliation, but a prime example of how pointedly cruel law enforcement is in our country, which is why we will continue to follow the story, investigate, and report back to you as it unfolds.
I would like to thank Michelle Lucas for sharing her journey with us. Thank you so much, Michelle. And, of course, I have to thank Stephen Janis for his writing, reporting, research and editing on this piece. Thank you, Stephen.
Stephen Janis: Taya, thanks for having me. I appreciate it.
Taya Graham: And of course, I have to thank friend of the show, Noli Dee, for her support. Thanks, Noli Dee. And I want you watching to know that if you have evidence of police misconduct or brutality, please share it with us, and we might be able to investigate for you. Please reach out to us. You can email us tips privately at email@example.com, and share your evidence of police misconduct. You can also message us at Police Accountability Report on Facebook, or Instagram or @EyesonPolice on Twitter. And, of course, you can always message me directly @TayasBaltimore on Twitter and Facebook, and please like and comment. I do read your comments and appreciate them. And I try to answer your questions whenever I can. My name is Taya Graham, and I am your host of the Police Accountability Report. Please be safe out there.
Michelle Lucas is a pizza delivery driver, a proud grandmother of four, and a community activist who alleges that she was railroaded into a felony conviction that carries up to two years in prison. As part of PAR’s ongoing coverage of the expansion of mass incarceration in rural America, we take an in-depth look at the shoddy police investigative work and the imbalanced levers of justice that lead sheriffs to attempt to prosecute her twice for the same alleged crime.