This Isn't Rambo, It's A Fat Lawsuit

COMMENT

December 05, 1993|By MIKE BURNS

Just when it looked like the all-around disgrace of the Keystone Kowboy Kop and the drunk hit-and-run driver in

Darlington last year had been put to rest, it shamelessly surfaced again at the Harford County Courthouse.

Pierre Petetit, whose car was riddled with bullets from Port Deposit's off-duty police chief, Samuel Maranto, in a high-speed chase from Harvey's Jr. roadhouse in November 1992, has filed a civil lawsuit asking $14 million for his unhappiness.

He's suing Mr. Maranto, but mainly the town of Port Deposit, for $9 million compensatory damages and $5 million in punitive awards. Mr. Petetit's wife and two children are named in the suit as suffering from a loss of relations as an after-effect of his traumatic post-midnight encounter with Cecil County's exceptionally long arm of the law.

Mr. Petetit, who then lived in Pennsylvania and now resides in Oregon, was legally intoxicated when eventually arrested by state troopers that night. His auto had struck a man in the tavern's parking lot as he sped away, putting the injured pedestrian in the hospital for a week.

He was convicted of the drunken-driving charge and was given probation before judgment, while charges of assault and leaving the accident scene were dropped. Prosecutors said the dropped charges would have been difficult to prove; Mr. Petetit claimed he had been in a fight with a couple of bar patrons, and was trying to escape from a hostile crowd that had besieged his van in the parking lot when his vehicle accidentally hit Burton Anderson around the 2 a.m. closing time.

That's when Chief Maranto came swinging by in his red pickup truck, on his way home to Darlington after a hard day at the office. He claims to have seen the van strike a bystander outside the bar and speed away. The chief gave chase for 18 miles along U.S. 1, both vehicles reaching 80 mph, and fired at least three shots from his police handgun at Mr. Petetit's van.

Mr. Petetit raced to the Benson barracks of the Maryland State Police for protection from the unknown pursuer, but then sped out of that parking lot when he saw no police cars parked there. Finally, his car stopped and Chief Maranto moved to apprehend him just as state troopers arrived and arrested both men.

Chief Maranto went to trial in September. Actually, he was by then ex-chief and had been lame-duck-chief on the night that he administered his highway justice. Port Deposit had voted to phase out its police agency in 1992, turning over duties to a resident deputy of the Cecil County sheriff's office.

He was tried and acquitted by a Harford County Circuit Court jury of charges of reckless endangerment, stemming from the high-speed auto pursuit through a county in which he had no jurisdiction and the repeated firing of his service revolver. He had no police light or siren, no police radio in his private vehicle, and no way to identify himself to Mr. Petetit as a law officer.

Now Mr. Petetit's civil suit asks that Port Deposit and Mr. Maranto pay him for the episode. The suit claims that Mr. Maranto's prior work record, including dismissal from the

Aberdeen force, was cause for the Cecil town not to hire him and appoint him chief for four years.

After lawyers raise the usual defenses about municipal immunity and good faith, the suit probably won't go anyplace. It probably shouldn't, either, given the culpability of both parties to the wild pursuit.

What Port Deposit and the greater community should learn from this is that there are strict limits to what a town cop should do. They should confine themselves to policing their own jurisdictions and to focus on issues of local protection and law enforcement.

There are very few instances in which the much-abused concept of "hot pursuit" is warranted, as much as local police might yearn for the action. And there's definitely no reason for an off-duty officer initiating hot pursuit and gunplay outside the officer's assigned town.

Let it be a matter of policy that these local police learn to write down the license plate numbers of suspicious vehicles and promply inform the competent authorities, instead of giving dangerous chase.

Off-duty police who foil crimes or arrest dangerous criminals get a lot of publicity, most of it well deserved. But there is always a danger that some will take that for public approval to go beyond the limits of good judgment, that the Rambo syndrome will take over. And that is a greater danger to the public welfare.

Recall the plight of Fenwick Island, Del., which nearly declared bankruptcy after its gendarme gave hot pursuit to a speeder and arrested the suspect at gunpoint in Maryland. The detained speeder, a lawyer, sued the town in federal court and a jury awarded him a $110,000 judgment against the town in 1984.

Though the judgment was overturned by an appeals judge, the case should serve as a general warning.

Delaware still abounds with local cops, enforcing speed traps on out-of-state travelers who contribute liberally to municipal budgets. But the cops have been taught to observe the state borders in their pursuits.

Mike Burns is The Baltimore Sun's editorial writer in Harford County.

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