Lawyers for police officer, Arundel disagree over firing

Appeals court arguments focus on the standard that panel should use

November 02, 2001|By Andrea F. Siegel | Andrea F. Siegel,SUN STAFF

Lawyers for Anne Arundel County and a fired police officer clashed before the state's top court yesterday, arguing over what standard an internal discipline board should use to decide whether an officer is a thief.

The case stems from the firing of Charles Coleman, a county police corporal, in 1998 after a board determined that he had stolen cash during a test of his integrity.

At stake for Coleman are his pension, estimated to top $1 million, which he cannot collect because he was fired just before reaching 20 years on the police force, and his reputation and ability to get a security-related job.

The legal issue affects police around the state, said Coleman's lawyer, Byron L. Warnken, because this case could lead to a ruling setting one standard for police boards throughout Maryland.

In dispute is whether the police board used a standard of "preponderance of the evidence," which means more likely than not and is easier for prosecutors to meet, or the standard of "clear and convincing evidence."

Assistant County Attorney Julie T. Sweeney argued before the court that the trial board applied the tougher standard to Coleman but had to use only the lesser standard. She said discipline boards should not have to decide which one to apply.

The Court of Special Appeals, which upheld the firing, applied the lesser standard. Though Coleman disputed other findings, this was the only one taken up to the Court of Appeals.

Warnken argued that the nature of the allegation should determine which standard is used. When a police board is looking at labeling someone a thief - accusing a person of a crime - a tougher standard should apply, he said.

Coleman was targeted in 1997. Two undercover Howard County officers gave a fanny pack to Coleman, saying they had found it by a convenience store. It contained, among other things, $76.25.

Coleman processed all of the contents except three Tylenol pills and the cash. He said he could not process the money because no supervisor was on duty, and he intended to deal with it later. He took the cash, and the next morning bought fast food with a $5 bill from the money. He said it was an oversight; a police board agreed with the department's contention that he intended to steal.

Coleman was 39, a few months shy of retirement eligibility at the time of the police hearing. The board recommended his firing, but that the dismissal not take effect until after he was eligible for retirement or had used up his leave.

Police Chief Larry W. Tolliver fired him effective immediately.

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