Legal dispute on pay for guarding inmates could cost the state

Prince George's suit says responsibility not county's inside the courthouse

October 06, 1999|By Greg Garland | Greg Garland,SUN STAFF

A legal dispute over who should pay to guard and escort inmates while they're in a county District Court could end up costing the state millions of dollars, depending on how a judge decides the case.

Prince George's County, which has sued the state, argues that the county's responsibility ends once a prisoner is taken to the courthouse.

Managing inmates while there is part of providing security at District Court -- a state responsibility, the county maintains.

But the state contends that escorting prisoners and guarding holding cells is a custodial rather than a security function -- one the county is responsible for providing at its expense.

Ruling expected in 30 days

Charles County Circuit Judge Steven G. Chappelle, who heard arguments last week in Prince George's, is expected to issue a ruling within 30 days.

While the lawsuit deals only with Prince George's, state officials say that a ruling in the county's favor -- if upheld by higher courts -- could affect the 22 other counties, which pay sheriff's deputies or correctional officers to manage prisoners. The District Court in Baltimore would not be affected, officials said.

"If the practice were changed across the state, there would be additional costs," said Assistant Attorney General Lawrence P. Fletcher-Hill, who argued the state's case.

Fletcher-Hill said he had no firm estimate of what the costs might be, but he acknowledged it would run into millions of dollars each year. Prince George's spends slightly more than $1 million a year on such services, according to county officials.

David C. Bliden, executive director of the Maryland Association of Counties, said the lawsuit reflects "a general county frustration with having funding responsibilities for areas and functions which are truly state, and not county, functions."

Partial victory

Prince George's won part of what it sought from its lawsuit when Maryland's highest court ruled in June that state government -- not the county -- generally must pay to provide security at the county's District Court.

The Maryland Court of Appeals ruling on that issue affected only Prince George's because it was the only jurisdiction in which the Sheriff's Department provided security without state reimbursement.

Most other district courts use bailiffs -- retired law enforcement officers certified as special police officers -- to provide security in the courthouse, with the state paying the tab.

Prince George's wants Chappelle to order the state to reimburse the county for more than $50 million that it spent during the past 25 years to have the Sheriff's Department provide security services.

"Those are sums that the taxpayers of Prince George's County paid that rightly should have been borne by the state, and the state has a moral and legal obligation to reimburse them for those costs," said County Attorney Sean Wallace.

`Immune from past claims'

Fletcher-Hill said the state is "immune from past claims of this sort," and he is confident it will not be ordered to reimburse Prince George's for security expenses incurred in the past.

Chappelle plans to hold a hearing in January to decide what, if anything, the state should have to pay Prince George's for security expenses in past years, Fletcher-Hill said.

As a result of the Court of Appeals ruling, state funds are being used to hire 16 bailiffs to provide general security in courtrooms.

Until the remaining legal dispute is resolved, the Sheriff's Department has agreed to continue guarding prisoners in courthouse holding cells and to provide certain other services.

The lawsuit has a convoluted history.

It started three years ago when James V. Aluisi, then the sheriff of Prince George's, sued the county, alleging that County Executive Wayne K. Curry slashed too much from his budget. Curry countersued Aluisi, alleging waste and mismanagement.

The county also sued the state, arguing that it should pay for many of the security duties the Sheriff's Department was providing.

Pub Date: 10/06/99

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