Man wins suit over '91 arrest

April 21, 1994|By Dennis O'Brien | Dennis O'Brien,Sun Staff Writer

An Anne Arundel Circuit Court jury yesterday awarded $116,000 to a black Annapolis shipwright who was bitten by a police dog and thrown to the ground by two white city police officers as he protested a neighbor's arrest.

Robert E. Joyce, 49, of 9 Marcs Court was awarded $100,000 in damages for pain and suffering and $16,783 for medical expenses after a four-day trial before Judge Bruce C. Williams.

The all-white jury of four women and two men deliberated almost five hours before deciding that Officers Joseph E. McGeeney and John Miller violated Mr. Joyce's civil rights. Mr. Joyce said yesterday he was gratified not so much by the monetary award, but because the jury agreed the officers acted improperly.

"I'm just glad they got found guilty of something," said Mr. Joyce, who sued the City of Annapolis and the two officers. The city would be liable for the judgment.

The officers said they are confident they will be vindicated on appeal and feel they acted appropriately.

"If I went out [on a similar call] tomorrow, I wouldn't do anything different," said Officer McGeeney, who has 15 years' experience as a police officer.

The Sept. 13, 1991, incident occurred just after Mr. Joyce got home around 11 p.m. Officer McGeeney had just arrived to investigate a complaint about a loud party at 9 Marcs Court. He found a crowd that included David Sellman, who was drinking from an opened beer can and holding two unopened beers. Officer McGeeney ordered Mr. Sellman, who also lived on Marcs Court, to empty the beer cans. Mr. Sellman refused and was arrested.

As Officer McGeeney struggled to handcuff Mr. Sellman, a crowd of about 10 people, including Mr. Joyce, confronted him. At that point, Officer Miller, a seven-year veteran, arrived with his police dog, Charlie.

There was conflicting testimony as to whether Officer Miller yelled any warnings before releasing the German shepherd.

"I know it was announced, because it was music to my ears when I heard it," Officer McGeeney said after yesterday's verdict.

Mr. Joyce said he didn't hear any warnings and had his back to the dog when it bit him on the left calf. After the attack, Officer McGeeney arrested Mr. Joyce, "slammed" him to the ground and put a knee into his back as he handcuffed him, said Joseph F. Devlin, Mr. Joyce's lawyer.

Charges against Mr. Joyce for hindering police were later dismissed, but not before he spent a night in a police cell and made two court appearances, Mr. Devlin said.

Mr. Sellman was later convicted of resisting arrest.

In his closing argument Tuesday, Mr. Devlin told jurors that Officer McGeeney's actions had worsened Mr. Joyce's back condition and forced his client to have an operation that left him with $16,000 in medical bills.

The injuries also make it difficult for Mr. Joyce to do his job, which involves crawling on the inside of ships, Mr. Devlin said.

"I definitely believe that Mr. Joyce was wronged. And I think the jury looked at the conduct of the officers, and found that he was wronged, that they used excessive force," he said.

Rignal W. Baldwin Jr., the lawyer for the officers, noted that the jurors dismissed Mr. Joyce's claims against the officers for false arrest, false imprisonment, battery and malicious prosecution.

"This isn't a case of civil rights. It isn't a case of police brutality. It's a dog-bite case," Mr. Baldwin told the jurors yesterday.

After the verdict, jurors said they did not discuss Mr. Joyce's race during their deliberations. They said they decided the verdict on evidence that showed the officers may have used more force than necessary.

"Most of what they did was OK, but the feeling was that they maybe used a little too much force," said one juror, who requested anonymity.

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