Firing of police officer fair, appeals court says

Ruling in Anne Arundel case upholds standard of proof for dismissal

May 07, 2002|By Andrea F. Siegel | Andrea F. Siegel,SUN STAFF

In a ruling that affirms the standard of proof used in police disciplinary hearings, Maryland's highest court rejected yesterday a former Anne Arundel County police officer's contention that he was improperly fired after an internal affairs sting.

Former police Cpl. Charles Coleman, who was fired in 1998 a few months shy of qualifying for retirement benefits, had argued that police boards should not be able to base their decisions on a "preponderance" of evidence. He argued that a higher legal standard -- "clear and convincing" evidence -- should be applied, but the Court of Appeals disagreed.

Losing the case costs Coleman, 43, a pension potentially worth more than $1 million, said his lawyer, Byron L. Warnken. Warnken said he was unsure whether he might consider asking the Supreme Court, which accepts only a small fraction of the petitions it receives, to review due process issues also raised in the case.

"I'm saddened by the court's decision, that they feel the rights of officers are less important than anybody else's," said Coleman, now a construction supervisor. "Officers who feel the Law Enforcement Officers Bill of Rights protects them are wrong."

Warnken had cited a 1986 Court of Appeals review of a Maryland Public Service Commission hearing in arguing that Coleman was entitled to the higher standard of proof because he had been accused of a theft. But that case no longer applied, the Court of Appeals said in yesterday's ruling, because laws enacted in 1993 set the level of proof needed at administrative hearings.

Also, laws covering state police hearings do not call for the higher standard of proof. In the unanimous ruling, the court affirmed that the level of proof needed is preponderance of the evidence, which is likened to accepting that one argument is more likely to be correct than another.

Establishing one level for proof throughout the state and for all administrative discipline accusations is fair, said Senior Assistant County Attorney Julie T. Sweeney, who argued that disciplinary boards should not have to decide which level of proof to apply.

"It makes it much more consistent, regardless of the charges," she said. "I think it struck a fair balance between the officer's individual interests and the interests of the department and the public in maintaining a disciplined and honest police force."

In 1997, Coleman was targeted for a sting operation, though he had already passed an integrity test, court records show. Two Howard County police officers posing as ordinary citizens turned in a fanny pack found at a convenience store. It contained, among other things, $76.25 in cash.

Coleman processed the other items in the bag, but by the end of his shift, the cash and three Tylenol pills were not processed, police alleged. The next day, Coleman was suspended. He had mixed the $76 in marked bills with his own cash and was $5 short on the marked bills, court records show.

Coleman told police investigators it was an oversight.

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