ANNAPOLIS -- A Court of Special Appeals judge yesterday denounced the Carroll County Narcotics Task Force's practice of refusing to deal with drug suspects represented by Westminster attorney Stephen P. Bourexis.
"It seems to me that this [issue] is not a very happy situation for the Carroll County Narcotics Task Force," Judge Diana G. Motz said, as she and two of her colleagues heard Mr. Bourexis' appeal of the dismissal of his $10.5 million lawsuit against the task force.
"As a matter of policy, and I speak only for myself, this is not a happy policy," Judge Motz said.
Except for Judge Motz's comment, yesterday's hour-long hearing was anything but happy for Judith S. Stainbrook, Mr. Bourexis' law partner and attorney in the appeal. "We'll see what happens," Ms. Stainbrook said as she walked out of the courtroom.
The lawsuit, filed last May in Carroll County Circuit Court, contends that the drug enforcement group blackballs Mr. Bourexis' clients from becoming informants or entering plea negotiations with the task force.
In September, Carroll Circuit Judge Raymond E. Beck Sr. dismissed the suit. He said the task force "has full discretion" to decide whether or not to plea bargain with any defendant or defense attorney.
Yesterday, Chief Judge Alan M. Wilner and Judge Motz repeatedly asked Ms. Stainbrook to explain what rights of Mr. Bourexis' were being violated. Several times in the hearing, the judges appeared not to understand why the lawsuit was filed.
"Who's got the burden of proof here?" Judge Wilner asked. "It's your complaint. Where's the proof?"
Ms. Stainbrook -- in her argument and in briefs filed with the court -- argued that the blackballing of Mr. Bourexis' clients interferes with the attorney-client relationship and could ultimately harm Mr. Bourexis' ability to continue representing drug defendants.
As she explained her position to the judges -- she said the task force declined to "work with" clients represented by her law partner -- the judges continued their questioning.
Judges Wilner and Motz reminded Ms. Stainbrook that no one has a constitutional right to plea bargains, and, therefore, the task force's actions did not violate anyone's rights.
"If 'working with' is not a plea bargain, then what is it?" asked Judge Motz.
"It's the initial arrangement between the suspect and the police," Ms. Stainbrook said.
"We're going around in circles here, Ms. Stainbrook," Judge Wilner said.
Ms. Stainbrook sought to revive the lawsuit, in which Mr. Bourexis seeks damages against the task force and two of its officers, state police Tfc. Richard Heuisler and Westminster Police Sgt. Andrew McKendrick. The judges could uphold Judge Beck's dismissal or remand the suit to Judge Beck for another hearing. The Court of Special Appeals decision is expected within three months.
Assistant Attorney General Leo W. Ottey Jr., representing the task force and Trooper Heuisler, and Charles S. Fax, Sergeant McKendrick's attorney, argued that Mr. Bourexis failed to show any violation of Mr. Bourexis' rights by their clients.
They also said that, if any right were violated, the officers are protected because they were acting in their official capacities.
Mr. Ottey also argued that the task force was immune from suit because it is not an agency, merely a cooperative duty agreement between three police agencies.
"The task force doesn't have a separate existence," Mr. Ottey said after the hearing. He also said that task force officers have the discretion in deciding to whom to offer plea bargains.
"I don't think there's a problem with that at all," Mr. Ottey said.
The policy of refusing to work with Mr. Bourexis' clients came to light during a criminal trial last year when Trooper Heuisler testified that it was "common knowledge" among task force officers that "we're not working with anyone who is represented by" Mr. Bourexis.