It all began in September 1995 when . . .
Officer Stephanie Mohr was a young K-9 handler and her training officer, her K-9, and she responded to a call for backup after officers from a neighboring jurisdiction encountered a suspected business burglary in progress.
Officer Mohr, working for the Prince George’s County, Maryland Police Department, was new to the Special Operations Canine Unit, having been in the unit for less than a year.
On her arrival at the scene, Officer Mohr, with her K-9 in tow, called for the two men to come down from the building roof. While they did come down, they ignored police orders, conversing with each other in Spanish.
When she saw one make a sudden movement, Officer Mohr’s concerns were heightened because neither of the two had been patted down for weapons and neither was handcuffed.
The young officer, fearing an attempt to flee or worse, yelled “Stop!” When one of the subjects failed again to comply, she released the K-9 with orders to ‘bite and hold.’ Within moments, the two suspects, Ricardo Mendez and Jorge Herrera Cruz, were in custody. Mendez was an illegal alien from Mexico; Herrera Cruz an illegal alien from El Salvador.
Mendez received 10 stiches on his leg from the dog bite. He and Herrera Cruz were charged with Fourth-Degree Burglary and were deported.
End of story? Far from it.
In 1999, the U.S. Justice Department Civil Rights Division decided to open the case under civil rights statutes. They took the incredible and costly step locating and returning Mendez and Herrera Cruz back to Maryland as government witnesses.
Although Officer Mohr was never the subject of a Prince George’s County internal investigation, and was never the subject of a complaint from either of the illegal aliens or other police officers on the scene in 1995, five years after the arrest she had a new and surprising worry—the DOJ.
With no concern about the contributions to public safety made by the police, one day before the statute of limitations expired in September 2000, DOJ indicted the young officer, demonstrating its ability to zealously protect the civil rights of two illegal aliens and suspected business burglars, one of whom had already plead guilty and served jail time.
A then probationary K-9 handler would face federal civil rights charges that would be life-changing. Stephanie was charged with willfully depriving Mendez of his right to be free from the use of unreasonable force and with conspiring with her partner before allowing her police dog to bite and hold the subject five years before.
Officer Mohr was 30 years old when she faced a jury trial in early 2001. The jury acquitted her of conspiracy but could not reach a verdict on the civil rights charge, voting 11-1 for acquittal. Undeterred by the hung jury, the DOJ moved to a retrial.
The second trial was a complete turnaround from the first, with almost all rulings crippling Stephanie’s defense, including the court allowing unproven and highly prejudicial suggestions that Officer Mohr was a racist. Officer Mohr was found guilty in August 2001 and sentenced to 10 years imprisonment.
LELDF recognized the injustice presented by Officer Mohr’s case and agreed to help. LELDF supported her through multiple appeals, as well as throughout her incarceration and long separation from her son Adam, who was two years old when she went to trial, four when she was sent to prison, and 12 when she was released to start rebuilding her life.
The case demonstrates the great risks faced by law enforcement canine handlers, not only from dangerous and uncertain situations and subjects but from courts which allow the introduction of highly prejudicial and misleading actions or statements that may have occurred before or after alleged use of force incident at issue.
Officer Mohr’s case also demonstrated the amazing care and compassion of LELDF donors, who not only contributed greatly to her appeals but whose cards and letters gave her the continuing sense that people cared.