Court to decide if Bell Atlantic liable for wiretap

February 01, 1996|By Dennis O'Brien | Dennis O'Brien,SUN STAFF

Thirteen years ago, the Hagerstown police chief illegally tapped the telephone of an officer he suspected of tipping off gamblers to police investigations.

Chief Clinton E. Mowen's eavesdropping ended his 29-year career, impugned the reputation of the officer and began a legal battle that will be heard today by Maryland's highest court.

The Maryland Court of Appeals will have to decide if Bell Atlantic-Maryland should be held liable for invasion of privacy because one of its supervisors helped set up the seven-month wiretap.

The telephone company contends Donald K. Wood was not acting on its behalf when he advised Chief Mowen and another officer in fall 1983 how to tap Cpl. Leon Fearnow's telephone.

But Mr. Fearnow's lawyers believe Mr. Wood was, in fact, working for C & P Telephone Co., the predecessor of Bell Atlantic-Maryland, at the time the wiretap was installed, because part of his job description was to give the police technical assistance.

Leon Fearnow was a decorated corporal in the 80-member department when the chief decided to tap his phone to try to prove a gambling connection.

Mr. Wood, a 20-year supervisor, has acknowledged he went to the police station one night and told the chief and another officer the best way to attach a voice-activated tape recorder to Corporal Fearnow's phone.

A department detective tipped the state prosecutor to the wiretap. Mr. Mowen was convicted of misconduct in office, resigned and was sentenced to five years' probation on April 8, 1987.

Mr. Fearnow, who resigned in 1986 and now is a security guard, later was cleared in an internal investigation of tipping off gamblers. But his reputation in the town where he grew up was tarnished forever, his lawyers said.

Mr. Fearnow filed suit in 1987 in Washington County Circuit Court against the chief, several police officers, Mr. Wood and the phone company, saying they invaded his privacy and ruined his reputation.

He settled his suit against the chief and the officers but a jury ruled for Mr. Wood in 1993, setting the stage for the Court of Appeals hearing. Mr. Wood, who has since retired from the phone company and is working for a West Coast telecommunications firm, was unavailable for comment.

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