After a string of interactions with the Ocean City Police Department over seemingly minor infractions, Danielle Dodson, then 28, began to feel that she was being targeted.

So in December 2022, she lodged a complaint with the new local “police accountability board.” The idea behind such boards, required under a state law enacted a year and a half earlier, is to give Maryland residents a fair and independent hearing of allegations of officer misconduct.

But Dodson’s complaint was investigated by the Police Department itself, and it took a turn: Within a few months, she was criminally charged with six counts of making a false statement to an officer over her initial complaint and a follow-up interview.

Dodson hired an attorney and went to trial. Judge G. Richard Collins, a visiting judge who presided over the case, acquitted Dodson and condemned the situation, saying that in his 50 years in the legal system and having worked in every county in Maryland, he’d never heard of a person being prosecuted after making an allegation of police misconduct.

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“Maybe it’s a common occurrence here,” he said.

Indeed, Dodson’s situation was not entirely unique. Worcester County State’s Attorney Kris Heiser, the top prosecutor since 2019, has taken an aggressive approach to prosecuting people who complain about police misconduct. Two others also have faced charges.

The prosecutions have raised questions about the motives of Heiser, the daughter of a law enforcement officer and wife of a current Ocean City Police Department lieutenant. She declined to respond to questions about potential conflicts of interest and her approach to police misconduct cases. Instead her office provided court documents about Dodson and the two other defendants.

The cases in Worcester County represent the starkest example of how efforts by Maryland lawmakers to enact new layers of independent police oversight across the state have been implemented unevenly. Criminal justice reform groups and the ACLU of Maryland are pushing to further empower the accountability boards, but legislative efforts appear to have stalled.

Ocean City is best known for its seaside boardwalk, rows of tourist-trap hotels and vinegar-soaked fries. Its government leaders also have developed a reputation as hostile toward what they see as attacks on police officers. Worcester County’s state senator and both of its delegates, all three Republicans, voted against the bill that created accountability boards.

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In Worcester County, the board’s “administrative charging committee,” which is tasked with reviewing citizen complaints against officers, is made up mostly of current or former law enforcement, according to a county roster and a review of LinkedIn profiles and other sources.

The seven-member accountability board is appointed by the county commissioners.

Roscoe Leslie, who is the committee’s advising attorney as well as the attorney for Worcester County, takes a narrow view on the committee’s role in holding Ocean City police accountable. He said that while its members have weighed in on issues such as whether officers had probable cause for a search, he’s not convinced it is the appropriate venue.

“To me, these people should be talking to a judge,” Leslie said.

Members of the charging committee did not respond to requests for comment, which were sent to the board’s email address and the county attorney.

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An excerpt from an Ocean City Police Department investigative report by Lt. Frank Soscia on a complaint filed by Danielle Dodson. (Court records/Court records)

In a written statement, Lt. Frank Soscia, who is assigned to the Ocean City Police Department’s office of professional standards and investigated Dodson’s complaint, said “the investigatory process for handling citizen complaints has largely remained unchanged” since the police accountability board was created.

Soscia said he reviews body-worn camera footage, witness statements and police reports, then conducts interviews with the people who flagged the alleged misconduct.

“If the facts provided by the complainant substantially contradict verifiable information and are incompatible with a reasonable explanation,” he said, “the Worcester County State’s Attorney’s Office is consulted to determine whether criminal charges should be filed.”

Sen. Jill Carter, a Baltimore Democrat who sponsored the law creating the police accountability boards, described Hesier’s prosecutions, first reported by the Capital News Service, as “totally outrageous.”

She said the General Assembly has a “lack of political will” to make sure the law creating the boards is having the desired effect. To that end, she created a task force to study its implementation. The task force still hasn’t met.

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‘The truth will come out’

In her complaint to the board, Dodson flagged three interactions: a warrant-check in a Holiday Inn parking lot, a traffic stop weeks later and a third encounter in a park-and-ride.

“Another person and I were sitting in my car eating WaWa and figuring out our job situation, schooling, unemployment, and social security, when an OCPD officer approached my car stating that we were being suspicious, demanding our IDs and to step out of the car to do a search,” Dodson wrote in her complaint.

Dodson did not respond to requests for an interview. Her father, Wayne Dodson, said she was in the criminal legal system for a DUI charge and wondered if that affected the police interactions with her. Dodson said he encouraged his daughter to file a misconduct complaint, and told her, “stay clean, the truth will come out.”

In his review of her complaint, Soscia noted that officers found cannabis in Dodson’s vehicle during the search in the park-and-ride, but he conceded that an officer had made a mistake that resulted in the loss of her identification card.

Soscia also flagged discrepancies between Dodson’s complaint and what he determined had happened. Among them:

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During the warrant check, Dodson said she was detained for up to 10 minutes in the rain. It was closer to one minute and wasn’t raining, Soscia found.

When she was pulled over, Dodson said she wasn’t told why for 10-15 minutes. An officer told Dodson “multiple times the reason for the traffic stop within five minutes,” Soscia found. She wrote that one officer was an “asshole” and another was “cocky.” Soscia said he did not “perceive any of the officers in the same manner Dodson describes them.”

“Although Dodson may not have agreed with the reasons for each of the stops the officers were patient and made an effort to explain what was occurring during the stops,” he said in his report.

At trial, prosecutor Erin M. Smith argued that Dodson was “alleging such things as police misconduct, false imprisonment and harassment because the officers don’t have a reason to stop the vehicle.”

Collins, the judge, noted that the officers seemed professional and Dodson seemed difficult to deal with. But he determined there was “no criminal case here whatsoever” and acquitted her.

Charging a person who makes a misconduct allegation, the judge said, has “the effect of telling people, ‘Don’t complain about the police because they might decide to make a criminal investigation of your differing opinions.’”

Two more cases follow

Yet after the Dodson acquittal, Heiser’s office pursued two more prosecutions along similar lines: against Messiah Burrell and Regis Sherry.

Donna Candella, a public defender in Worcester County, represented both.

In November of 2023, Ocean City Police pulled Burrell over and issued him several tickets, Candella said. After he drove back to his hotel, an officer showed up and issued more tickets, she added.

In his complaint, Burrell accused the officer of entering his hotel room without his permission. But a review of the body camera footage showed that didn’t happen, Candella said.

Candella said the judge dismissed the initial charge against Burrell stemming from his misconduct complaint because the judge determined that to be considered criminal; a false statement to a police officer must involve an allegation that a crime has been committed.

Sherry, the most recent person to be charged with making false statements about the police, was the passenger in a car being driven by his girlfriend when they were pulled over for aggressive driving, Candella said. Officers suspected Sherry had abused her due to a mark on her face, which she denied, saying the mark was always there. But the officers arrested Sherry for domestic assault, Candella said.

In the courthouse, Sherry approached a court commissioner and said he wanted to complain about the officer.

Candella said the district commissioner gave him a citizen’s complaint form, “as if you are filling out criminal charges,” instead of a police accountability complaint form.

That elevated process triggered a review of body camera footage, which showed that Sherry didn’t remember the police interaction correctly.

In acquitting his perjury charge and dismissing a charge of making a false statement, the judge ruled that while Sherry was inaccurate in his complaint, his misstatements weren’t intentional because Sherry was intoxicated during the interaction.

Candella said that like the judge determined in the Dodson case, she believes that the charges against her clients were “designed specifically to chill people from wanting to file these complaints.”

“It makes you a lot more fearful to file a complaint,” she said, “if you’re going to be the one that ends up charged.”