The news gets better all the time for county inspector William E. Watkins, who only months ago faced a $1,200 legal bill and a $125 fine after he was convicted of trespassing while on the job in Crownsville.
Not only were the charges dropped after Watkins appealed to a higher court, but the county is now prepared to pick up $1,000 of his legal expenses.
The County Council voted unanimously and without debate Monday night to adopt a measure giving inspectors and public safety employees the right to collect up to $1,000 from the county for legal expenses in criminal cases. They would be eligible for the payment if the charges result from actions taken within the scope of their jobs and if they are acquitted or if charges are dropped.
"It seemed unfair to make an inspector do something and then leave him in the lurch," saidCounty Councilor Virginia Clagett, D-West River, the bill's sponsor.
Watkins, who works for the Department of Inspections and Permits,was told to visit Francis M. Gasperich's Crownsville farm on Feb. 8,1990 to check on a report of improper disposal of hazardous waste. Gasperich, who had not given Watkins permission to enter his property,charged him with trespassing.
Watkins was convicted in District Court last June and fined $100 plus $25 in court costs. He asked for anew trial in Circuit Court.
In August, State's Attorney Frank Weathersbee dropped the case. Pursuing it, he said, "will further no legitimate state goal."
Clagett said yesterday that Weathersbee's decision not to proceed in Circuit Court constituted the "favorable final determination," that the bill specifies as a requirement for payingup to $1,000 in legal expenses. Because it came after July 1, 1991, Watkins qualifies for the payment. And because the case was dropped on appeal, the fines and court costs were refunded.
Watkins could not be reached for comment. But Gasperich, who opposed the measure along with several other county property owners, said after the vote: "It's bad news for these inspectors to feel that Big Daddy is going to protect them. . . . It's going to degrade the integrity of inspectors. It's going to make them careless."
In response to Weathersbee's dropping the Watkins case, Gasperich started a group called Citizens Against Lawbreaking Inspectors, and says he may mount a legal challenge to the decision.
Clagett said opposition to the bill was limited to Gasperich and a few of his neighbors.
"Other than that," she said, "the sentiment in the county was, 'How can you just leave the inspector with nothing?' "
Staff writer John A. Morris contributed to this story.