Like most states, Maryland’s hate crime statutes protect against discrimination based on race, color, religious beliefs, gender, sexual orientation, disability and national origin. A local police officer recently took it upon himself to add another category to that list of protected classes: Trump voters.
D’Asia Perry and Joy Shuford, 19-year-old friends, were charged Tuesday with a slew of crimes including second-degree arson, trespassing, and committing a hate crime for setting fire to a large Donald Trump billboard displayed near a family sporting goods store.
In the charging documents, Princess Anne Police Sgt. Robert Smith laid out his justification for the hate crime charge: “The intentional burning of these political signs, along with the beliefs, religious views and race of this political affiliation, directly coincides with the victim.”
Smith’s explanation suggests that those who share the sporting goods store owner Robert Wink’s “political affiliation” as a Trump-voting Republican all have the same “beliefs, religious views and race.” Wink is white, and Perry and Shuford are black.
“It almost seems like the officers were trying to make a political point by charging the defendants with that statute versus actually applying the law,” Steven Silverman, a Baltimore attorney who has worked on hate crimes cases, told TPM. “It’s an absurd hypothesis and a total misapplication of the statute.”
The Princess Anne Police Department declined to release its police report on the incident, but the charging documents spell out the events that led to the early Friday morning blaze outside of Wink’s Sporting Goods.
Emergency personnel arrived at the scene and found a sign advertising Glock pistols, a large Trump billboard, a Trump yard sign and a sign advertising failed U.S. Senate candidate Kathy Szeliga all ablaze, as was the surrounding vegetation, according to the charging documents. The fire department estimated a total of $800 in damage, according to the Baltimore Sun.
Surveillance footage helped the police locate Perry’s silver Volkswagen beetle on the nearby campus of the University of Maryland Eastern Shore, a historically black college where she is a student. Perry told police she didn’t know the other woman, who she referred to as “April,” and “just gave her a ride,” according to the charging documents.
The next day, Shuford, a former UMES student, turned herself in to Princess Anne police. She told Sgt. Smith that she and Perry were friends, and saw the sign on their way back from a trip to the Food Lion grocery store, according to the charging documents. They “joked about ripping it down,” Shuford told police, and she held a lighter to it after the screws holding it in place made pulling it from its post too difficult.
She told police the safety function kept the lighter from working, and that “when they left the area the sign had not caught fire.”
Both women, who were released on a $20,000 unsecured bond, now face up to 33 years in prison and/or more than $40,000 in fines, according to court documents obtained by Delmarva Now.
Silverman, the Baltimore hate crimes attorney, predicted that the hate crime charge was certain to be thrown out as the case proceeds.
“In Maryland, the police file charges generally at their discretion and then there’s a vetting process either by the state’s attorney or by a judge,” he explained. “I would expect that as that process continues, the hate crime charge would either be dismissed voluntarily by the state’s attorney’s office or certainly be dismissed by a judge.”
“It’s just kind of thrown out there from left field,” Silverman continued, saying he didn’t know what the officer who charged the case was thinking.
He noted that Princess Anne was located in a “very rural,” Republican county in the traditionally blue state. The town is home to only 3,325 people, according to the 2015 Census estimate, and Somerset County voted for Trump over Clinton 57.7 percent to 39.7 percent. Maryland overall voted for Clinton 60.5 percent to Trump’s 35.3 percent.
Wink’s sign has caused controversy before, even in this conservative pocket of the state.
It was previously set on fire in October 2016, and has been vandalized on multiple occasions and stolen twice.
Jamie Wink, the store owner’s son, told the Baltimore Sun that other visitors stop to pose for selfies with the sign and that it has helped drive business to the store, which sells firearms and hunting supplies.
“It’s been a pretty good attention-getter,” he said.