Military job leave protected High court ruling affects police appeal

December 17, 1991|By Lyle Denniston | Lyle Denniston,Washington Bureau of The Sun

WASHINGTON -- The Supreme Court, in a decision with direct impact on the Baltimore Police Department, ruled unanimously yesterday that federal law gives full protection for the rights of civilians to join military reserve units and to get time off for training.

The court cleared up a dispute among lower courts by deciding that employers may take no action against workers who choose to sign up as reservists, even if the demands that the military puts on the reservists seem "unreasonable" to the employer.

Although the decision came in an Alabama case, the court used reasoning that appeared to doom a Baltimore police regulation setting a maximum of 100 on the number of officers who at any one time could be reservists.

The city Police Department also appeared to have no way now to avoid paying $4,164 to a former officer who was ordered to leave a Marine Corps Reserve unit because his membership had violated the 100-officer limit.

Eric Kolkhorst, who has since left the department and is now an auto mechanic in Keyser, W.Va., had sued the department after it forced him to leave the Marine Corps unit he had joined. It also had denied him time off to go for two weeks of summer training with the Marines.

The officer won $4,164 for violation of his rights under a federal law that protects civilian workers' jobs if they are reservists.

City police officials took the Kolkhorst case to the 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Richmond, Va., and lost there last year. The Baltimore police have an appeal in that case still awaiting Supreme Court action.

That case has been held up, pending the justices' ruling in the case of King vs. St. Vincent's Hospital (No. 90-889). Because the Supreme Court yesterday used very much the same approach that the 4th Circuit Court had in ruling for Mr. Kolkhorst, the Baltimore police appeal appears likely to fail.

The Alabama case involved a hospital worker who asked for a three-year leave of absence so that he could take a temporary but full-time job with the Alabama National Guard. When the hospital denied his request, considering it to be unreasonable, he sued. Lower courts ruled that employers may refuse "unreasonable" demands by military reservist employees.

That is the ruling the Supreme Court struck down yesterday.

In another action yesterday with potential impact on Maryland, the court said it would consider a request by Virginia, Maryland and 24 other states that it forbid federal judges from second-guessing the use of a long-standing state rule for burglary or grand theft cases.

Under that rule, which in its original form dates all the way back to the seventh century, an individual found with stolen property in his possession is considered to be the thief unless a satisfactory explanation can be given for why he has the property.

The 4th Circuit Court in Richmond, in a ruling last April in a Virginia case, said individuals convicted in state courts where that rule has been used are to be freed by federal courts unless prosecutors can show strong evidence to support linking the accused person with the actual theft.

Maryland courts for decades have applied a rule very similar to the one used in the Virginia case.

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