Court To Rule If Off-duty Trooper's Actions Are Protected

Appeals Panel Hears Arguments On Suit Against Officer

November 11, 1990|By Maria Archangelo | Maria Archangelo,Staff writer

ANNAPOLIS - A Carroll County civil suit argued Wednesday before the state's highest court could decide whether the actions of state troopers are protected by law, even when the officers are off duty.

Robert Andrew Sawyer, 26, of York County, Pa., filed the lawsuit in June 1989 in Carroll Circuit Court against Tfc. Edwin M. Humphries of Westminster, claiming the officer assaulted him. Sawyer is asking for $27,000 in compensatory damages and $50,000 in punitive damages.

Sawyer and Humphries agree to this statement of facts entered in court records.

Sawyer was driving westbound on Route 31 behind Humphries at 1:30 p.m.

June 10, 1988. The off-duty officer, dressed in civilian clothes and driving his own car, motioned for Sawyer to pass. Sawyer went past, turned at Uniontown Road, and after several minutes, made a U-turn and got back on Route 31.

Both agree that a fight ensued in which Sawyer sustained facial injuries, and that Humphries only identified himself as a state trooper after the altercation.

But that's where Sawyer's and Humphries' versions diverge.

Humphries said that he thought Sawyer was following too closely and that when he saw Sawyer make the U-turn, he thought Sawyer was trying to follow him. He said he made a U-turn, pulled off the road, and waited to see what Sawyer would do.

Sawyer said he saw Humphries standing by his car and thought Humphries wanted to speak with him. He said he parked on the shoulder behind Humphries' car.

Humphries said he thought Sawyer intended to run him down, so he picked up some rocks and threw one at the car.

Sawyer said he speeded up to avoid being hit. Humphries said he believed the driver was trying to hit him.

Sawyer said he thought his car was damaged, so he made a U-turn and parked across the road. Sawyer said he got out of the car, saw Humphries pick up more rocks, so he picked up a bottle. He said Humphries threatened to kill him. Sawyer said he couldn't drive after the fight, so his passenger, Dean Hundley, took the wheel.

Court documents show Humphries caught Sawyer and Hundley in New Windsor, where he told them he was a state trooper and that they were under arrest.

Sawyer said he repeatedly asked Humphries for police identification, which Humphries failed to provide, and that Sawyer did not believe Humphries was a state trooper.

Humphries went to a nearby store, where he placed a call to state police requesting a marked car. Sawyer was charged with attempted murder and other offenses.

On July 7, 1989, Sawyer pleaded guilty to assault and following too closely. All other charges were dropped.

One month after Sawyer filed his civil suit, it was dismissed by Carroll Circuit Judge Luke K. Burns Jr., who agreed with Humphries' contention that even though he was off duty, his actions were protected by the Maryland Tort Claims Act. Under the act, state employees are not liable for their actions if they are in the course or scope of their job and if the actions were not malicious.

Sawyer and his lawyer, Westminster's Stephen Bourexis, appealed the decision to the state Court of Special Appeals.

The Court of Special Appeals upheld the lower court's ruling, saying it didn't matter if Humphries was acting as an officer because, "in Maryland, a policeman is a policeman 24 hours a day."

Bourexis and Sawyer appealed to the Court of Appeals -- the state's highest court -- and asked it to decide that a police officer is responsible for his actions when he is not on duty. They also asked the court to find evidence of malice in Humphries' actions.

The Court of Appeals agreed July 10 to hear the case, and Bourexis and co-attorney Judith Stainbrook presented arguments Wednesday. Assistant Attorney General Millicent Edwards Gordon represented Humphries and the state police.

Sawyer's attorneys maintained that Humphries is responsible for his actions and that he showed malice by throwing rocks.

Gordon argued that Humphries showed no malice, and that he only threw rocks when he thought himself in danger.

Associate Judge John F. McAuliffe, one of the five judges hearing the case, said during an exchange with Gordon that he believed the incident was a case of "hot-blooded reaction that occurs between motorists all too often," rather than a law enforcement action of a police officer.

The court recessed after arguments and was scheduled to reconvene Nov.


Baltimore Sun Articles
Please note the green-lined linked article text has been applied commercially without any involvement from our newsroom editors, reporters or any other editorial staff.