County prosecutors may drop charges against a county grading inspector found guilty of trespassing in June.
On Wednesday, State's Attorney Frank Weathersbee said he discussed the case against William E. Watkins, a county inspector for five years, with the Crownsville farmer who filed the trespass charges. Weathersbee said he'll decide whether to go forward with the case by Monday.
A District Court judge found Watkins guilty June 10 of trespassing on Francis M. Gasperich's tree farm. Watkins, who entered the site Feb. 8, 1990, with county police to investigate complaints of illegaldumping and grading, asked for a new trial in Circuit Court. A new trial is automatic on appeal from District Court.
Prosecutors said they are not sure Watkins, a 53-year-old Cape St. Claire resident, should have been tried in the first place.
"I don't want to prosecute someone for doing their job," Weathersbee said yesterday. "At the same time, I don't want private citizens' rights being violated, if that's what's occurring. I'm checking into that right now."
Gasperich said yesterday, "We want this resolved in court because it affects property owners throughout the state."
Gasperich has said previously that he believes officials ordered Watkins to harass him because he once testified against the county on behalf of another farmer. As aresult of Watkin's report after visiting the farm, the Health Department has denied Gasperich permission to dump sewage on his paulownia trees.
Assistant State's Attorney Tom Pryal said he wanted to dropthe case before it reached District Court. But, he said, defense attorney Timothy Murnane hoped to prove his client's innocence in court.
"Looking at the trespass laws, I thought he could be potentially found guilty," Pryal said. "I thought that would be the wrong result."
Pryal said he did not feel comfortable trying a county employee who was ordered to do a job. He also said he found it odd that Gasperich filed no charges against the two county police officers who accompanied Watkins to the farm.
Watkins, who has paid for his own defense, said he was unaware that prosecutors had ever considered dropping the charges against him. But he said he is worried that merely having the charges dropped may not clear his name. "If they can come to me and say, 'Hey, you're clear, not guilty,' then OK," he said.
Murnane could not be reached for comment.
But County Attorney StephenBeard, who represents Watkins' employer, said he could understand why the defense originally balked at dropping the charges. "There is a difference between a prosecutor's dismissal and what we all believed to be true, that he was not guilty," he said.
Watkins said he would like the county to reimburse him the more than $1,200 he has spent in legal fees. That is unlikely if the conviction stands.
But Beard said the county probably will reimburse Watkins if the case is dropped. Beard said his law office is also drafting legislation to make it a permanent county policy to reimburse employees prosecuted for carrying out their duties and found not guilty.
Watkins' conviction was seen as a setback for Neall, who had promised voters better enforcement of environmental ordinances. That goal would be much harder to reach if inspectors fear they are endangering themselves by doing their jobs.