Suit against trooper ends after 4 years Jury finds officer innocent of assault

February 25, 1993|By Traci A. Johnson | Traci A. Johnson,Staff Writer

A civil case that has seen the inside of every level of the state's judicial system was finally laid to rest yesterday in the RTC court where it had started almost four years ago.

Judge Luke K. Burns Jr., who had thrown the case out before it went to trial in 1989, presided over the six-member jury that decided the Maryland State Police officer named in the suit did not assault the Hanover, Pa., man with whom he had a fight in June 1988.

Judge Burns ruled a mistrial on the three remaining assault and battery charges. The jury had been deadlocked on those charges.

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

Court records show that Mr. Sawyer was driving west on Route 31 behind Trooper Humphries at 1:30 p.m. when the off-duty police officer, dressed in civilian clothes and driving his own car, motioned for Mr. Sawyer to pass.

Mr. Sawyer drove past, turned at Uniontown Road and, after several minutes, made a U-turn and drove back along Route 31.

The two-day trial showed that both men agreed the fight that ensued left Mr. Sawyer with facial injuries and that Trooper Humphries identified himself as a policeman after the altercation.

But while Mr. Sawyer said Trooper Humphries motioned for him to pull over to the side of the road where the officer was standing, Trooper Humphries said he thought Mr. Sawyer was trying to run him down.

Both men agreed that the officer picked up a rock and threw it at the car, court documents said.

According to court documents, Mr. Sawyer then parked his car across from where Trooper Humphries was parked and walked across the street to discuss the damage to his car.

Mr. Sawyer said he saw Trooper Humphries pick up more rocks, so he picked up a bottle.

The fight ensued, and Mr. Sawyer, who still did not know that Trooper Humphries was a police officer, got back into the car as its passenger. His friend and co-plaintiff in the suit, Dean Hundley, took the wheel and drove away.

Mr. Sawyer and Mr. Hundley drove to New Windsor to seek first aid from a relative who lived there, court testimony showed. But they were stopped and Mr. Sawyer was arrested by Trooper Humphries, who at that time identified himself as a Maryland state trooper but did not show a badge.

Trooper Humphries did not have his wallet with him, court testimony showed.

Mr. Sawyer was charged with attempted murder, assault and following too closely behind another vehicle, and was found guilty of assault. All other charges were dropped.

One month after Mr. Sawyer filed his civil suit, Judge Burns dismissed it, agreeing with Trooper 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 the job and if they were not malicious.

Mr. Sawyer and his attorneys, Westminster's Stephen Bourexis and Judith Stainbrook, appealed Judge Burns' decision to the state Court of Special Appeals, but that court upheld Judge Burns, saying: "In Maryland, a policeman is a policeman 24 hours a day."

The Maryland Court of Appeals did not agree and sent the case back to Carroll County for trial.

Judge Burns said he now believes his "initial decision was incorrect.

"The Maryland Court of Appeals was right in reversing that decision," he said.

Although Mr. Sawyer said he was disappointed with the jury's decision, he said he was glad finally to get "someone to hear my side of the story."

"I had a hard time getting anyone to listen to me," said Mr. Sawyer, outside the courtroom with his wife, three daughters and son. "I wasn't even sure if we would ever get a trial."

He said he still does not condone the officer's behavior, regardless of the trial's outcome.

"I had always heard about the exemplary conduct state troopers are supposed to show, but I didn't see any of that the day of this incident," Mr. Sawyer said.

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