State's attorney bans deals on vows not to sue Similar pact backfired when inmate filed criminal charges

March 26, 1997|By Caitlin Francke | Caitlin Francke,SUN STAFF

Citing ethical issues, the Howard County state's attorney's office has a new policy that bars the office from entering into agreements that trade the dismissal of criminal charges for a promise not to file a civil lawsuit.

The policy, enacted earlier this month, comes after such an agreement between a correctional officer and a Howard County Detention Center inmate backfired when the inmate filed criminal charges.

That agreement -- between inmate Michael A. Saukas and the state's attorney's office -- "raised a lot of ethical considerations," Deputy State's Attorney Les Gross said in an interview yesterday.

Though Gross said that agreement was not unethical, "a prosecutor should focus individually on a case" without taking into consideration whether that person is going to file a lawsuit.

Added State's Attorney Marna McLendon: "We felt that a civil release just does not factor into our decision on a case and tends to muddy the waters."

But officials at the county's Office of Law -- which represents the county in court -- and other attorneys who at times represent county employees said the signing of civil releases is not uncommon. Without these releases, they said, the county and its employees could be open to a stream of lawsuits.

Barbara Cook, who heads the Office of Law as county solicitor, was not informed in advance of the new policy by the state's attorney's office and plans to meet with Howard County Executive Charles I. Ecker to discuss the issue, according to F. Todd Taylor Jr., senior assistant county solicitor.

Attorneys who represent the county and its employees are concerned about the new policy.

"Being a police officer and the filing of civil lawsuits almost go hand in hand," said Timothy J. McCrone, an Ellicott City attorney who represents the police union.

He said policemen often must take actions that leave them open to being sued, especially in cases of an arrest that results in charges that are later dropped. "It is unfortunate from the perspective of the Howard County police that the state's attorney's office is no longer going to concern itself" with protecting policemen from "frivolous" civil suits, McCrone said.

He noted that, when he was a county prosecutor, he once disagreed with a policeman's interpretation of an incident and dropped the criminal charges, but got the defendant to sign a civil release that cleared the policeman and the county of liability.

4 "Everybody ended up really happy," McCrone said.

But a legal expert applauded the state's attorney's decision to do away such agreements, saying that they can be abused, keeping people from filing legitimate suits.

Michael Millemann, a University of Maryland law professor, pointed out that such deals are often used in claims of police brutality or abuse of prison inmates across the state.

"What concerned me about the policy is that it could actually encourage correctional officers to [file] phony criminal charges to create the dynamic to [get such an agreement] and insulate themselves from a civil lawsuit," Millemann said.

"When you don't look at the allegations and instead say 'Let's horse trade,' you get further away from justice," Millemann said.

The controversial agreement with the inmate that in part prompted the new policy came after a jail house scuffle between Saukas and Capt. Thomas V. Kimball in February 1996.

Kimball filed assault and battery charges against the inmate, but Saukas alleged that during the incident he was handcuffed and seriously beaten by Kimball and another officer.

On the day in June that Saukas was to stand trial, the state's attorney's office -- after consulting with the county's Office of Law and jail management -- agreed to drop the charges against the inmate if Saukas agreed not to sue Kimball, the county or the detention center for any injuries he sustained during the fight.

After the deal was done, Saukas filed criminal charges against the officer, who was indicted on assault and battery charges in October. A trial in Howard Circuit Court is pending.

Pub Date: 3/26/97

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