Two Howard officers cleared in assault case

No damages are awarded

man was at fault, jury says

January 17, 2003|By Lisa Goldberg | Lisa Goldberg,SUN STAFF

Two Howard County officers accused of assaulting a young man before a 1998 Phish concert at Merriweather Post Pavilion did nothing wrong, and, in fact, it was the man who pushed the officers, a Howard County jury found yesterday.

But jurors, who heard testimony over three days this week, awarded no damages to Lt. John McKissick and Officer Michael Proviano, who filed a civil counterclaim against Columbia resident Peter Farragut.

"We told [the jury] right up front we ... did not want anything at all. What we wanted was a finding," said Rebecca A. Laws, a senior assistant county solicitor. "They weren't in it for the money. They were in it for vindication."

Farragut, 25, had sued the county and the two officers in 1999, saying that the officers grabbed him from behind, slammed him on a car and sprayed him in the face with pepper spray while he was holding balloons in the Merriweather parking lot before the Aug. 8, 1998, concert.

In an unusual move, the officers countersued, saying Farragut resisted arrest when they approached him after they saw the balloons, which they believed contained nitrous oxide. The officers did not originally intend to arrest the man, only to make him get rid of the balloons, Laws said.

Instead, the officers said, Farragut pushed McKissick, who was then a sergeant, when the officer reached for his hand, and then pushed Proviano, according to court papers.

But the officers left without making the arrest when the crowd began shouting and throwing beer bottles at them, Laws said. The officers feared for their safety at that point, she said.

County officials thought it was important to make a strong statement in this case, Laws said.

"We believed that it was important for the community not to think their police are rogue officers," she said.

Jurors deliberated about two hours yesterday morning before finding that the officers did not "commit a battery" against Farragut, son of former Howard County Councilman Paul R. Farragut, and did not falsely imprison him or violate his civil rights, as Peter Farragut claimed.

Instead, jurors found that Peter Farragut had battered both officers.

Farragut was "disappointed because, obviously, he knew from the verdict the jury didn't believe him. They didn't believe his testimony," said David H. Greenberg, who, along with David S. Harvis, represented Farragut. "He knew his testimony was truthful but, obviously, the jury didn't see it that way."

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