For 33 harrowing hours, Martin Jones was plucked out of campus life at Kennesaw State University and hurled into the criminal justice system, locked up inside the Cobb County jail.
He had no business being there. Jones had no criminal record and hadn’t been accused of committing any crimes.
But when KSU police pulled him over on a Saturday night for driving without his headlights on, an order for his arrest turned up in the state crime database. Over the next morning, Jones would be placed in handcuffs, driven to jail and dressed in a blue inmate uniform.
“I was shocked and confused, because I wasn’t sure why there was a warrant out,” Jones said. “I’ve never had any prior run-ins with law enforcement. That was my first time ever being pulled over.”
Forgetting his headlights wasn’t what landed him trouble. His predicament started two years earlier when, just after his 21st birthday, Jones applied for a firearms carry permit in his South Georgia hometown. The sheriff’s office in Albany added his personal information to a countywide database of names used by law enforcement to track criminal suspects, The Atlanta Journal-Constitution determined.
A “malicious, reckless” mistake by a detective was all it took to turn Jones into a wanted man, according to a lawsuit he has filed against two Albany Police Department officers seeking more than $1 million in damages.
With a record number of people purchasing firearms amid the coronavirus pandemic, Jones’ ordeal points to a hidden risk of registering for a concealed carry permit in Georgia. While county probate courts issue licenses, applicants typically must to go a law enforcement agency for fingerprinting and a criminal background search. A permit can be rejected if any felony convictions, drug convictions or firearms violations turn up.
John Monroe, a gun rights attorney and vice president of GeorgiaCarry.org, said the Dougherty County Sheriff’s Office may have violated a 2014 state law that forbids maintaining a multijurisdictional database of people issued weapons licenses. He said he suspects other police agencies around the state are doing the same.
“I have had this conversation with some police officers,” Monroe said. “At the time I lived in Fulton County and I had a weapons carry license. They ran me in Cobb County as though they had pulled me over, and it came up that I had a weapons carry license. And that’s just plain not legal.”
A spokeswoman for the Fulton County Police Department, which runs background checks for gun owners applying for permits through Fulton County Probate Court, said applicants’ personal information is not kept on file or stored in any database.
Credit: HYOSUB SHIN / AJC
Credit: HYOSUB SHIN / AJC
The wrong Martin
Because Jones’ information was kept on file, it didn’t take much to label him an accused criminal.
In December 2018, Albany police responded to a domestic violence call on the other side of the Flint River from where Jones grew up. A 31-year-old woman’s car windshield and back window had been smashed with a concrete brick, and holes had been beaten into the windows, walls and floors of her home with a wooden board.
Documents provided by Jones’ attorney show how police searched their database for the accused man, named Martin Jones. Four people by that name turned up. One was later identified as the actual suspect. Another was Martin Montavious Jones, a Dean’s List student studying mechanical engineering at Kennesaw State, more than 200 miles away. His middle name was different from the suspect’s.
“I was shocked and confused, because I wasn't sure why there was a warrant out. I've never had any prior run-ins with law enforcement. That was my first time ever being pulled over."
Detective Tangela Henry swore out warrants for the KSU student, charging him with two felony counts of criminal damage to property in the second degree, court records show.
Jones is now suing both the detective and Cpl. Dexter Hawkins, who was involved in writing the police report that named Jones as a suspect. The lawsuit alleges unlawful search and seizure, false arrest, false imprisonment and violation of his civil and state rights.
“I have no idea how he chose that particular Martin Jones,” his attorney, William Godfrey, said.
Attorneys for officers Henry and Hawkins declined to comment for this story, as did Albany Police Chief Michael Persley.
Three months after the warrants were issued, Jones left his car running in a KSU parking lot while he ran back into his dorm room to grab a textbook. He forgot to switch his headlights back on.
Campus police let him off with a warning for the headlights, but then called him later that night and and asked him to stop by headquarters. When he got there, they told him he had arrest warrants out of Albany and read him his rights. Jones said he knew it had to be a mistake.
“I had midterms that week of being arrested. I actually missed a couple midterms while I was in jail. I missed classes. I almost missed my registration period for my next semester of classes,” he said. “I had a lot going on in my mind at one time, at that point.”
Jones used his phone call to wake up his mother, LaTasha Jones, down in Albany.
“Mom, I’m in jail.”
“I don’t know.”
She and her mother went to work that morning, visiting both the Dougherty County jail and the Albany police department. Eventually, they found a supervising officer who pulled the case records.
None of it made sense, his mother told the officer. Her son didn’t know the woman who filed the police complaint. She logged into her son’s employee portal for his part-time job with a heating and air company and showed the officer time sheets placing him in Atlanta at the time of the domestic dispute.
By early Monday afternoon, a Dougherty County magistrate judge had dismissed the charges.
“What if he didn’t have a parent, or someone who cares or could assist him?” LaTasha Jones said. “If nobody were there, he’d just be a product of the system, by mistaken identity, for so many years, or so many months. And then they’ll say, ‘Oh, you’re not the right person.’”
Credit: HYOSUB SHIN / AJC
Credit: HYOSUB SHIN / AJC
Life with a record
Jones graduated in May and has been working for UPS while he looks for a job in mechanical engineering. His attorney is in the process of having his arrest record restricted under Georgia law so it won’t appear in a criminal background search.
But there are no guarantees. Jones dreams of working as a civilian engineer for the military or for contractors for the U.S. Department or Defense or NASA, which will require security clearance and a deep-level background search.
“Martin will always have to answer yes when he’s asked, ‘Have you ever been arrested for a crime,’” Godfrey, his attorney, said.
An official with the Dougherty County Sheriff’s Office confirmed that Jones wound up in the county’s “master name record” database because of the gun permit application. Anyone who has contact with police can be entered, including people who visit jail inmates, Chief Jailer John Ostrander said.
Maintaining records of gun permit applicants doesn’t violate state law, Ostrander said, because they don’t reflect whether the permit was granted or denied, and the information is only shared between law enforcement and emergency agencies within Dougherty County. So it’s not “multijurisdictional,” he said.
Monroe, the gun rights attorney, said sharing it with multiple departments makes it so, even if the information stays within the county.
“I get what he’s saying,” Monroe said. “But if it went among every law enforcement agency in Georgia, they could say it doesn’t go beyond the state. But that’s not how that works.”
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