A federal judge has declined for the second time to cite two assistant Baltimore County attorneys for criminal contempt for hiding evidence from plaintiffs in a 1987 civil case against county police.
In an order dated last Friday, Judge Joseph C. Howard held the two attorneys, John A. Austin and James G. Beach 3rd, in civil contempt of court and fined them $7,500 each for violating a court order.
But the judge, without comment, rejected criminal contempt citations recommended last month by court-appointed special prosecutor W. Neil Eggleston.
Howard's order freed Austin and Beach from the possibility of disbarment, which could have been considered by the Maryland Attorney Grievance Commission and the Maryland Court of Appeals had the judge found the two guilty of criminal contempt.
The two lawyers must pay the fines personally.
Howard's order was filed yesterday in U.S. District Court in Baltimore. According to another paper in the file, the order was submitted to Howard jointly by Eggleston and Robert B. Green, a Baltimore lawyer the county hired to defend Austin and Beach.
Eggleston alleged in his criminal contempt proposal that Austin and Beach had "corruptly" obstructed justice by hiding evidence that could have helped the plaintiffs in a civil suit filed against the county police. Austin and Beach defended the county in the legal action.
The civil case, which charged county police with negligence and civil rights violations, stemmed from the suicide of James E. Buffington, 24, who hanged himself in the Wilkens District police lockup March 17, 1987.
James Buffington's parents, David and Barbara Buffington of Catonsville, eventually were awarded $185,000 in compensatory damages by a federal court jury. An appeals court upheld the award.
Sources said the key to Howard's new order was an agreement by Austin and Beach not to appeal the civil contempt citations, as they did after Howard first imposed them in 1989.
The new order said the $15,000 in fines would go to the Buffingtons to compensate them for legal fees they incurred in seeking criminal sanctions against Austin and Beach after the civil trial, when they learned of the county attorneys' misconduct.
Howard said in his original civil contempt order, in August 1989, that Austin and Beach knowingly and repeatedly ignored a court order to produce pretrial evidence for the Buffingtons in the case.
The judge also said then that violations of court orders during the pretrial discovery process "cannot be tolerated, at least by those on this [federal] bench and this court in particular."
He said that, although he could have found Austin and Beach guilty of criminal contempt, he chose not to do so because "the crushing of these two young lawyers' careers may not be indicated."