RICHMOND (NNPA) - Can you imagine being arrested and jailed for trespassing on private property you own or control? That's what happened to Otis Smith Jr., according to Richmond General District Court records.
The 62-year-old Richmond native was arrested and put in jail in late June on a charge of trespassing at 1308 N. 30th St., a Church Hill residence his family has owned for 110 years. Mr. Smith is one of the owners of the property through inheritance.
A judge ordered Smith to be jailed while awaiting a trial on the charge. Mr. Smith said he was shocked to be fingerprinted, photographed and put behind bars until he was able to arrange the $500 bail the judge had set.
He never should have been charged, the Richmond commonwealth's attorney's office confirms, calling the arrest and jailing of someone for trespassing on his own property "unusual."
Collette McEachin, a deputy commonwealth's attorney, said she sought to get the charges dismissed after learning that Mr. Smith had a right to be on the property. She said she and Mr. Smith's attorney, John Taylor, were able to get a judge to throw out the charges July 21.
McEachin said this unfortunate situation actually could happen to anyone. She said Smith's situation is the result of a criminal justice system that allows one individual to bring a misdemeanor charge against another person, even if the person charged did not commit the offense.
And if it happens, it means someone like Smith usually has to wait until the case is heard to be vindicated, McEachin said. For Smith, that meant going through the stress of being treated like a criminal and facing the expense of bail and an attorney.
"It's just crazy," Smith said.
Here's how he got into the situation. Smith manages the house for his family.
He uses it as the headquarters for a prison ministry called The House of New Beginnings Inc. that he and his wife, Loretta, founded and have run for 20 years. His program includes letting two to three released prison inmates stay at the house rent-free for up to six months to help them get on their feet.
Stafford W. Withers Jr., one of the men Smith recently had allowed to stay at the house, decided not to leave when his time was up in May.
To avoid eviction, Withers went to a Richmond magistrate on June 1, claimed ownership of the house and was allowed to swear out a trespassing warrant against Smith. Withers was not required to show any
proof of ownership.
When Smith was arraigned June 22, he said he brought documents with him to prove the trespassing charge was phony. But Smith said he wasn't allowed to present the evidence at the hearing held to set his trial date and ensure he had an attorney.
"I tried to explain what was happening," Smith said, "But the judge wouldn't listen. He got so annoyed with me he put me in jail. I had to get a $500 bond to get out."
Withers hit Smith with a second charge of trespassing on the property after Smith went to the house July 1 for a meeting with his organization's board of directors.
Withers called police about Smith being there. Smith avoided being jailed again.
He was served a summons July 7 on the second charge of trespassing. The summons, like a traffic ticket, only required him to appear in court. That case also was dismissed July 21.
Ironically, just as Smith was served with the second charge, his organization was filing a civil action in Richmond General District Court to evict Withers. That case is scheduled for a hearing next week. But Smith's problems with Withers have not ended. On July 21 after his trespassing cases were dismissed, Smith was served with a new assault warrant that Withers obtained.
Smith now has to deal with that charge.
Smith said, "It's as ridiculous as the trespass charge."