Appeals Court Upholds Civilian's Assault Suit Against Officer

March 27, 1991|By Maria Archangelo | Maria Archangelo,Staff writer

Based on a civil suit filed against a state trooper in Westminster, the state's highest court has ruled the actions of policeofficers are not always protected by law, even when they are on duty.

"Whether on duty or off, police officers can be sued for personally motivated malicious actions -- actions outside the scope of expected police duty," the Maryland Court of Appeals said Monday.

Robert Andrew Sawyer, 26, of Hanover, Pa., filed the lawsuit in June 1989 in Carroll Circuit Court against Tfc. Edwin M. Humphries, claiming theofficer assaulted him. The suit asks for $27,000 in compensatory damages and $50,000 in punitive damages.

FOR THE RECORD - In a March 27 story, headlined "Appeals court upholds civilian's assault suit against officer," it was incorrectly stated that Robert Andrew Sawyer pleaded guilty to assault charges in 1989. Sawyer pleaded not guilty to the charges, but was convicted of them in Carroll Circuit Court.

Court records show that Sawyer was driving westbound on Route 31 behind Humphries at 1:30 p.m. June 10, 1988. The off-duty police officer, dressed in civilian clothesand 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 drove back on Route 31.

Both agree that a fight ensued in which Sawyer sustained facial

injuries and that Humphries identified himself as a policeman after the altercation. On other points, their stories diverge.

Sawyer claims that after he made the U-turn, Humphries was standing by the side of the road and motioned to Sawyer to pull over on Route 31.

Humphries maintains that because he thought Sawyer was trying to run him down, he picked up a rock and threw it at the car.

Sawyer said he saw Humphries pick up more rocks, sohe picked up a bottle.

A fight ensued, and Sawyer was badly beaten. He claims the officer threatened to kill him. A passenger in Sawyer's car took the wheel and drove away when the fight was over.

Court documents show Humphries caught up with Sawyer and his passenger in New Windsor, identified himself as an officer, and arrested the pair. Sawyer was charged with attempted murder and other offenses.

Sawyer pleaded guilty to assault and following too closely in July 1989. All other charges against him were dropped.

One month after Sawyer filed his civil suit, it was dismissed by Circuit Judge Luke K. Burns Jr.,who agreed with Humphries that although the officer 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 were committed in the course of their job and if they were not malicious.

Sawyer and his attorneys, Westminster's Stephen Bourexis and Judith Stainbrook, appealed Burns' decision to the state Court of Special Appeals, saying the officer did act maliciously and that his actions should not be protected.

The Court of Special Appeals upheld Burns' decision, saying, "In Maryland, a policeman is a policeman 24 hours a day."

But the Court of Appeals agreed with Sawyer and his attorneys.

"There is no suggestion in the complaint that Mr. Humphries was attempting to question, stop, detain or arrest the plaintiffsin connection with any criminal offense, or any matter of concern to the police department," wrote Judge John C. Eldridge in the unanimous opinion. "Mr. Humphries was acting for purely personal reasons."

The court's ruling sends the case back to Carroll Circuit Court.

Sawyer said he has mixed emotions at the prospect of another trial, but is glad he won the appeal.

"I didn't do this to be vindictive," he said. "I just wanted the opportunity to let the facts be told."

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