Tangled assault case ends with deal Charges dropped

inmate agrees not to sue county

June 16, 1996|By Ivan Penn and Caitlin Francke | Ivan Penn and Caitlin Francke,SUN STAFF

The case against an inmate accused of assaulting a Howard County jail captain appeared to be unraveling even before it reached the courtroom Thursday.

At first, the state's attorney's office wanted inmate Michael Saukas to face charges that he assaulted Capt. Thomas V. Kimball during a jailhouse scuffle Feb. 24.

But Saukas' attorney, Jason Shapiro, threatened to bring up questions surrounding Kimball's lack of state certification -- arguing that according to state regulations, the shift commander should never have been there in the first place.

So Shapiro offered a deal: Prosecutors would drop the charges against Saukas if he agreed not to sue the county, the Detention Center or its employees alleging abuse in the incident.

"In my opinion, the Howard County Detention Center would be embarrassed by the evidence that we would put forth," Shapiro said.

It is the kind of agreement that a legal observer said should be carefully used.

"It sometimes gives prisoners a Hobson's choice between pursuing the civil claim or being acquitted of the criminal case," said Michael Millemann, a University of Maryland law professor.

County officials, meanwhile, said dropping the charges in a simple assault case was pragmatic, the kind of thing that happens routinely in District Court. Because Saukas had threatened to sue, they accepted his pledge to waive that right as part of the deal.

"There wasn't any push in this office to get the charges resolved to get the county off the hook," said Rebecca Laws, risk management coordinator in the county's solicitor's office. "We didn't have any great fear here that Mr. Saukas was going to sue."

The case stemmed from an incident in which Saukas was being escorted from the visitor's area of the jail but refused to return to his cell until he could talk to the shift commander about an incident involving his headphones, according to incident reports and interviews.

Saukas' refusal to go to his cell prompted a scuffle with officers. Saukas said in interviews with The Sun that he was beaten while handcuffed.

He never filed criminal charges or a lawsuit, however.

Kimball, who was the on-duty shift commander, alleges that Saukas took a "karate stance" and kicked him once in the right shin and once just above the right knee during a scuffle. Kimball wrote in an incident report that he "subdued" Saukas to get him back into his cell.

On Feb. 26, Kimball filed assault-and-battery charges against the inmate.

Kimball's case appears to have been endangered by his controversial background in Maryland corrections over the last several years.

In October, his subordinates circulated a petition accusing him of intimidating another employee.

Last month, inquiries by The Sun into his work background showed that Kimball was not certified to work at the Howard County jail. His certification had lapsed after he resigned from the Eastern Correctional Institution in 1989 amid allegations of drug use by a subordinate.

Kimball said last week that he was scheduled to start the five-week training course required for certification July 8.

Shapiro said he planned to highlight those issues concerning Kimball in his defense of Saukas.

"Their case was weaker than they would have liked, and mine was stronger than they had anticipated," Shapiro said. "Rather than have a win or loss decided by the court, they gave us what we wanted."

When Shapiro approached the state's attorney's office about the deal Thursday, prosecutors questioned the county solicitor's office, the jail's director, Kimball and potential witnesses. All said the agreement would be "an appropriate thing to do," said

Christine Gage, District Court chief for the state's attorney's office.

James Rollins, the jail's director, said he wanted to see Saukas prosecuted but supported the agreement when county's legal counsel suggested otherwise.

"Had the Office of Law not agreed, I would not have agreed," Rollins said. "I'm not an attorney. We don't encourage or discourage our officers to take out assault charges."

Kimball said last week that he accepted the agreement willingly.

Todd Taylor, a county attorney who spoke to Rollins, could not be reached for comment Friday.

State's Attorney Marna McLendon said dropping charges in District Court is common because the charges are usually minor and the caseload heavy.

"You can't go forward with 65 cases a day," McLendon said.

Some legal experts say such deals can be dangerous for inmates if they prevent them from pressing legitimate claims.

"There's kind of a coerced immunity that's troublesome," said Millemann, the University of Maryland law professor, who did not know the specifics of the Saukas case.

Azora Irby-Muntasir, director of Maryland Citizens United for the Rehabilitation of Errants, said she thought the deal was "egregious."

"I think it's wrong, but when people want to get the hell out of jail they'll do anything," she said. "I would go ahead and sue them. [Saukas] had a case because he was dealing with a man who wasn't certified to be there."

Pub Date: 6/16/96

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