Couple's suit says that police were vulgar in wrongful arrest

March 17, 1995|By Sheridan Lyons | Sheridan Lyons,Sun Staff Writer

A Catonsville dairy driver and his wife have filed a multimillion-dollar lawsuit against the Baltimore County police over an incident in which they said they were ordered from their car at gunpoint by a group of officers.

The police have declined to comment on the suit and refused to make public their reports on the arrest March 4, 1994, which prompted the lawsuit filed by Christopher Duane and Michelle Marie McDermott in the county Circuit Court.

Mr. McDermott, 24, said he wasn't told for hours why he was handcuffed in front of neighbors -- and the couple's 3-year-old daughter -- and hauled to the Woodlawn precinct for booking and interrogation.

But Mrs. McDermott, 23, said that she was told he had been arrested for attempted murder and that she became hysterical.

With her husband gone, she said, the police used an expletive in telling her to shut up and cooperate or be arrested and see her daughter, Amber Marie, who was crying and buckled in a car safety seat, placed in the custody of the Department of Social Services.

"It was right in front of my daughter. It was horrible. It was absolutely horrible," Mrs. McDermott said.

"She was crying, horrified to see these long-haired men with guns put her daddy in handcuffs. She kept saying, 'Where's my Daddy? What are you doing with my Daddy?' "

The police refused to let Mrs. McDermott, an office manager at the time, call her boss or a relative to take the child, she said.

"They told me if I didn't shut my f mouth, they would take me away with my husband and take her to Social Services -- and that meant more to us than anything," she said.

So Mrs. McDermott accompanied the police to her house in the 700 block of Meadowbrook Ave., where they used her key to enter and search for a gun. She said they told her they didn't

have the search warrant in hand, but it was brought to the home about 90 minutes later.

"I told them, 'You're crazy. There's no way my husband has a gun,' " she recalled. "He wouldn't have a gun in the house. He doesn't like them." None was found in the search, she said.

Records in the county state's attorney's office show that Mr. McDermott was charged with assault and handgun offenses, all of which the prosecutors decided to drop on April 18.

The McDermotts' civil suit names as defendants the county, the Police Department and several officers and seeks $1 million in compensatory damages and $5 million in punitive damages on various counts including assault, false imprisonment, intentional infliction of emotional distress, defamation, malicious prosecution, trespass, invasion of privacy and conspiracy.

Cpl. Kevin B. Novak, a police spokesman, said the department's "official response is we don't respond to lawsuits."

He would not say whether police had the wrong man or why Mr. McDermott was arrested. The incident report has been sealed and restricted to law enforcement personnel, Corporal Novak said, because the alleged victim of the crime that was being investigated is a juvenile. In the past, however, reports involving juveniles have been made available to the press.

The McDermotts believe it was a case of mistaken identity. "They obviously had the wrong man," Mr. McDermott said in an interview this week.

Mr. McDermott and his wife, recently laid off from her job as an office manager, said they have never been in trouble with the law.

"Even if my husband was the right man, they had no right to treat my daughter and me the way they did," Mrs. McDermott said.

The incident began about 5 p.m., after the McDermotts said they had driven just half a block from their home -- going out for the evening and taking Amber to stay with her grandmother.

Mr. McDermott had just turned onto Bloomsbury Road when an unmarked Mercury, approaching from the opposite direction, wheeled across the double line and stopped in front of him, according to the lawsuit. An unmarked Pontiac Grand Am pulled up behind them, and about eight plainclothes police officers surrounded their 1993 Corsica with guns drawn.

"Someone said, 'Get the . . . out of the car,' and the first thing I saw was the gun," Mr. McDermott said. "I didn't know who it was. When I saw the gun pointed at me, I just did what they said."

"You assume that it's the police in broad daylight like that -- although you never know," he said. "I was puzzled, I guess the same way anybody would feel. . . . I just saw that rifle: It looked like a cannon pointed to me."

"It was like something you see on TV," Mrs. McDermott said. "They had ducked down behind their cars like we were wanted criminals."

Mr. McDermott said he was informed of the charges against him after about four hours at the precinct. He said he didn't ask for a lawyer because "I'm not used to this kind of stuff. I've never even had a lawyer. I didn't know what to do."

The couple were planning a party for Amber's fourth birthday the next afternoon, he said, "and I just kept asking if I was going to make it."

Released about 1 a.m., he said he made the party but "I wasn't too much good for it."

bTC After the incident, the couple said, they considered moving because of their embarrassment. A police sergeant, apparently acting on his own, apologized to them informally about two weeks later, they said.

"We were very scared, shocked, embarrassed. It was in front of all our neighbors," said Mrs. McDermott, now pregnant with their second child. "For the first two weeks, we didn't sleep much."

"Our daughter is petrified of police," she said. "Sirens make us nervous. You never know: It could happen again. It could happen to anybody. It could happen to you."

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