The Baltimore branch of the American Civil Liberties Union is urging a Towson man who claims he was physically and verbally abused by a Baltimore County police officer to file suit against the department as a way to bolster drivers' constitutional protections.
Dwight Sullivan, managing attorney in the Baltimore office of the ACLU, said the case could be used to give Maryland motorists rights that drivers have lost through recent U.S. Supreme Court decisions.
"This case really does the job in showing how vulnerable we are to police officers when the [federal] courts strip us of our protections," Sullivan said. "I certainly hope they bring in action in state court and [that] the judiciary will make a firm statement that this thing is unacceptable according to the state constitution."
Sullivan was referring to allegations Kristopher M. Klipner, 22, made last week against Officer Armando A. Zapanta Jr. of the Towson precinct.
Klipner, who was stopped after allegedly crossing the center line while driving on Burke Avenue on July 14, says he was detained at the precinct for eight hours on four routine traffic citations. One of those citations was issued after a state Motor Vehicle Administration computer indicated his license was suspended, though it had been reinstated four days before.
Klipner also says he was injured when Zapanta intentionally slammed on the brakes while driving him to the Towson precinct, sending the unrestrained and handcuffed Klipner crashing into the cruiser's cage.
The Police Department's Internal Affairs Division is investigating the incident. But Michael Marshall, a lawyer for Fraternal Order of Police Lodge No. 4, said Zapanta did nothing wrong.
"He is denying any wrongdoing or any impropriety," said Marshall, who declined to discuss specifics of the case. "His story is drastically different than their story."
Zapanta said he arrested Klipner after he refused to sign two citations and became belligerent, according to court documents.
Several county police officers have told The Sun that the practice of abruptly stopping a police cruiser while driving a prisoner is called a "screen test." The officers, who asked not to be identified, said the tactic is occasionally used to calm a belligerent or drunken suspect.
Stephen R. Tully, an attorney representing Klipner, said he will ask the state's attorney's office to drop the four citations -- having a mutilated license, crossing the center line, failure to display registration and driving on a suspended license.
Since the Klipner case was publicized last week, Tully said, 10 people have contacted him saying they were mistreated by Zapanta, 26, during an arrest or encounter.
Police refused to say whether Zapanta, a three-year veteran of the force, was the subject of other complaints. There are no cases against him in Baltimore County Circuit Court or U.S. District Court.
Tully said he is trying to figure out why Klipner, who said his face was bloody after the ride in the cruiser, was not photographed at the precinct, a routine procedure during booking.
Bill Toohey, a police spokesman, said last week that the precinct's camera was not working. But Tully said he has received several anonymous calls from police officers who said the Towson precinct has a Polaroid camera that is to be used in emergencies.
A police spokeswoman would not comment yesterday.
The outcome of the department's investigation could hinge on the testimony of Jason Amey, a 19-year-old member of the department's Explorer Program who was riding with Zapanta the night of the incident.
Sullivan said that if Klipner's case goes before the state's appellate courts, it could be used to give motorists in Maryland rights that the federal courts ruled are not afforded under the U.S. Constitution. The ACLU would likely assist Klipner if he files suit and his claims are verified, he added.
The Supreme Court ruled April 24 that police have the right to arrest and jail someone suspected of an offense that also could be handled by issuing a citation. Klipner could have been given citations after the alleged traffic offenses rather than be arrested.
The court ruled in 1995 that police officers are not at fault for an arrest or search prompted by false information on a government database.
But Sullivan said police would have no protection under federal or state law to use a "screen test," as Klipner alleges.
"The Police Department is probably lucky this young man was not injured more seriously than he was," Sullivan said.