Court upholds firing of deputies

April 30, 1993|By Norris P. West | Norris P. West,Staff Writer

The Maryland Court of Special Appeals yesterday upheld th firing of two Howard County sheriff's deputies for exhibiting "Nazi-like" conduct on the job.

A three-judge panel of Maryland's second-highest court ruled the deputies could not claim their speech was protected under the First Amendment because it was done in private.

The court dismissed arguments that Sheriff Michael Chiuchiolo acted beyond his authority in firing them.

The deputies, twins Donald Pruitt and Dennis Pruitt, were found guilty by an administrative hearing board of conduct unbecoming officers. Donald Pruitt was a major in the sheriff's department at the time, and Dennis Pruitt was a sergeant.

On Jan. 7, 1991, the board recommended that the Pruitt brothers demoted, fined $200 and ordered to undergo counseling.

Sheriff Chiuchiolo, however, fired them a month later.

Clarke F. Ahlers, an attorney for the Pruitts, said he has not had a chance to study the opinion and has not decided whether to appeal.

"I don't know if we're going to take it to the next level, but I think it's important for everyone to realize that the sheriff overrode the mandate of the hearing board when he fired the Pruitts," Mr. Ahlers said.

The appeals court, however, ruled the deputies were not denied due process when the sheriff made his decision to fire them, upholding an Anne Arundel Circuit Court decision.

Mark H. Bowen, an assistant attorney general who handled the case, could not be reached for comment.

The Pruitts' conduct was revealed in a story by The Sun on March 31, 1990. Other deputies complained in the story that the brothers frequently made "Nazi-like" statements and gestures on the job.

In their testimony before the hearing board, the Pruitts testified that their conduct was humorous and intended as a joke, mostly as a parody of the television show "Hogan's Heroes."

The court, in a unanimous opinion written by Judge Theodore G. Bloom, said their remarks occurred in a private setting and were not a matter of public concern warranting constitutional protection.

"Sheriff Chiuchiolo acted within his authority and discretion in terminating appellants' employment," the court said.

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