State trooper should be punished for using racial epithet, court rules

August 09, 1994|By Joe Mathews | Joe Mathews,Sun Staff Writer

A state police trooper, who is now based in Westminster, should be punished for using a racial epithet in front of a Baltimore woman he stopped on the Beltway five years ago, says the state's second-highest court.

The woman, 67-year-old Patricia C. Blom, accused Trooper First Class Dennis M. Hooper of explaining his decision in February 1989 to stop her white Cadillac, which had expired license plates, by referring to his trooper partner by a racial slur and saying that he had to show him "that the law applies to whites as well as blacks."

Mrs. Blom also charged that the trooper was rude in ordering her out of her car on the highway.

At the time, Trooper Hooper, who is white, was training fellow Trooper Michael S. Wright, who is black, in routine traffic patrol. In interviews with investigators, Trooper Wright said he overheard the comment as described by Mrs. Blom and understood it as a reference to himself.

After a November 1991 hearing, the state police superintendent found Trooper Hooper guilty of unbecoming conduct and uttering a racial epithet, and he had his leave time reduced by one day and received an unpaid suspension of three to five days, court documents show.

Appeals carried the case as far as the Maryland Court of Special Appeals, which ruled against Trooper Hooper last week.

"There's not much I can say except that I agree with the court's opinion," said Betty Stemley Sconion, a lawyer with the state attorney general's office who represented the Maryland State Police in the matter.

Trooper Hooper -- who was posted to the now-defunct Security barracks of the state police in 1989 -- told the disciplinary board he never made any comment like that attributed to him by Mrs. Blom and Trooper Wright, according to court records. Repeated efforts to reach Trooper Hooper and his attorney, Daniel B. Loftus, were unsuccessful.

In reaffirming the state police decision to discipline the trooper, a three-member panel of the appellate court overruled Carroll Circuit Court Judge Francis Arnold's July 1993 decision.

Judge Arnold had ruled that state police investigators failed to give Trooper Hooper sufficient notice of the nature of their investigation and that the charges against him -- brought two years after the incident -- were not timely.

But the appellate court blasted the ruling, saying in its own nine-page decision that there was no proof that any flaws in the police investigation had hindered Trooper Hooper's ability to defend himself. The court said further that Judge Arnold should have based his ruling on the facts as provided by the state police and not on his own interpretation.

"It appears clear to us," the appeals panel said, "that the trial judge substituted his own findings for that of the agency and, in doing so, erred."

Asked about the criticism of his decision yesterday, Judge Arnold said he couldn't comment on the substance of the ruling.

"I called it the way I saw it, and they called it the way they saw it," the judge said. "There's an old saying -- it's not whether you're right but whether you have the last word. And they're a higher court."

In its ruling, the appeals court appeared to accept Mrs. Blom's explanation that she waited until the six traffic citations given to her in February 1989 were no longer an issue before coming forward with a complaint against Trooper Hooper.

Mrs. Blom said in an interview yesterday that she did not want the trooper to be able to argue that her complaint came in retaliation for the tickets. She also disputed the argument made by Trooper Hooper's attorney that her age undermined her credibility as a witness.

"I was bothered by the suggestion of racism," said Mrs. Blom, who is white. "I don't believe that racist remarks have a place in this kind of situation."

Even though he acknowledged hearing a racial epithet, Trooper Wright said he did not report the comment because he did not want to jeopardize his training status. In a November 1991 hearing before the superintendent of state police, Trooper Hooper's attorney accused Trooper Wright of lying about the remark to investigators in an attempt "to say anything to avoid confrontation and please the listener."

Efforts to reach Trooper Wright yesterday were unsuccessful.

The commander of the Westminster barracks, Lt. Bruce Tanner, said through a spokesman yesterday that because the incident occurred when Trooper Hooper was posted to a different barracks, he knew almost nothing about it.

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