Stephanie Mohr was a 24-year-old police rookie with the Prince George’s County Police Department and the newest member of the canine unit when, on Sept. 21, 1995, she and her dog, together with a training officer, responded to a burglary call at a printing company in Takoma Park, where two suspects had been spotted on the roof.
She never could have imagined that a simple burglary call would land her in prison for a decade.
Two undocumented immigrants — one from Mexico, the other a Salvadoran — climbed down from the roof of the printing company but one of them refused to drop to the ground and made a sudden furtive movement.
On instructions from her canine training officer, Stephanie Mohr released her dog, which bit the suspect in the leg, preventing his escape. The illegal immigrant’s injuries were minor, requiring only 10 stitches, and no complaint was ever lodged.
In accordance with procedures then in place in Prince George’s County (as well as in the neighboring District of Columbia and most regional departments at the time), the unit’s dogs were trained to bite. Under revised rules, the department now trains them to merely bark at suspects, holding them at bay until police arrive.
In the five years that followed the 1995 burglary incident, Stephanie Mohr blossomed as a police officer and as a canine handler.
Already the first female canine officer in Prince George’s County history, she and her four-legged “partner” were the first in the county to undergo eight weeks of intense training to become certified in bomb detection.
She rapidly advanced to the rank of corporal, earning two awards for meritorious service and 25 letters of commendation. Her superiors lauded her assistance in bringing down burglary and homicide suspects, her eagerness to appear alongside her canine partner at local schools and county fairs, even her work providing personal security at President Clinton’s second inaugural gala.
It was not until a series of articles by The Washington Post alleged brutality in the Prince George’s County Police Department that Cpl. Stephanie Mohr became a scapegoat. Her career — and her life — soon came crashing down around her.
The FBI launched an extensive investigation into the department and its canine unit. In the course of interrogating a Takoma Park police officer on an unrelated matter, the 5-year-old bite by Stephanie Mohr’s dog became the focus of the federal government’s interest.
On the day before the statute of limitations was to expire, Stephanie Mohr and her training officer were indicted for federal civil rights violations and conspiracy.
At taxpayer expense, the two burglars were brought back for the trial, one from a federal prison where he was being incarcerated on narcotics charges, the other from El Salvador, where he had been deported.
After a first trial jury acquitted her of the conspiracy charge and deadlocked 11-1 for acquittal on the civil rights charge, the government nonetheless went forward with a second trial.
This time, the prosecutor went for blood. The court admitted highly prejudicial testimony that, during the five years since the incident, a handful of citizens had filed suit against the department for bites by Stephanie Mohr’s dog. A Capitol Heights woman was even permitted to testify that Stephanie Mohr had threatened to release her dog on her “black ass.”
The allegations of subsequent dog bites hit their mark with at least one juror. “She had to be stopped,” this unnamed juror told The Washington Post. “If we had let her go and she had hurt someone else, I know I would have felt guilty.”
The 29-year-old former police officer, a single mom with a son less than 3 years old, stood before the court to receive the maximum sentence allowed, 10 years in prison — one year for every stitch sustained by an illegal immigrant caught in the act of burglary.
What’s most remarkable is that Stephanie Mohr has not become embittered, nor has she allowed this nightmare to define her. Immediately upon her release, she secured employment as a county building inspector and has built a strong relationship with her son, now age 19.
The Law Enforcement Legal Defense Fund, which has stood with her throughout her post-conviction appeals, is now asking President Trump to grant Stephanie Mohr a pardon.
We strongly believe President Trump should pardon Stephanie Mohr.
Mr. President, by any measure, this good police officer has paid whatever debt she owed society. She underwent two highly publicized federal trials before losing her career, her freedom and 10 years of her son’s childhood — all for a dog bite.
• Jason C. Johnson is president of the Law Enforcement Legal Defense Fund, which supports the law enforcement profession with public education and by supporting the defense of law enforcement officers wrongfully accused of crimes.