State law murky on errant sheriffs

Meadows investigation continues, but it raises theoretical questions

Meadows investigation raises legal questions

Harford County

March 02, 2003|By Lane Harvey Brown | Lane Harvey Brown,SUN STAFF

As Howard County police investigate a complaint filed against Harford County Sheriff Joseph P. Meadows, the case has raised interesting questions about how the matter might be handled.

Meadows, 42, has been out of the office on paid leave since the complaint was referred to Howard police Feb. 10 by the Harford agency's second in command. The nature of the complaint, filed by a female employee of the sheriff's office, has not been disclosed.

The investigation is under way, and no findings have been released.

Still, legal experts say the case is unusual because the way state law is written, there's no obvious recourse for dealing with errant top elected law-enforcement officials.

"For sheriffs, there's nothing," said Assistant Attorney General Robert Zarnoch. "We've got a little gap in the constitution."

For almost every other elected official, said Zarnoch, the constitution spells out specific ways of getting rid of wrongdoing leaders, usually within the courts or through the General Assembly. There's no mention of sheriffs.

"It's not as if this [lapse] is a big surprise," Zarnoch said, noting a 1973 opinion involving a Frederick sheriff accused of embezzlement and other crimes. The attorney general's office pointed out the gap in state law then, he said. As a result, a few years later, the state constitution was amended to eject officials found guilty of any felony or misdemeanor related to duty, he said.

That provision has largely made the other recourse, impeachment, unnecessary, Zarnoch said.

Creating clearer avenues for dealing with such cases is not a quick process, Zarnoch said. The General Assembly would have to pass a bill that would then go to state vote -- next year, during the next regular referendum period.

In Annapolis, Republican Del. Barry Glassman, the Harford delegation chairman, said, "There is some political buzz about it, but we don't know much more than what the press is reporting."

He said the constitution's limitations are clear. Lawmakers are taking a wait-and-see approach on the matter, he said, adding, "It's premature to do anything until the results of the investigation are finalized."

Sheriffs, like other heads of law-enforcement agencies, are protected under the Law Enforcement Officers Bill of Rights (LEOBR), established in 1974 to ensure the rights of police agency officers accused of misconduct, said Herbert Weiner, a Baltimore lawyer who has represented police officers for more than three decades.

But the law, used most often in investigations of rank-and-file officers, gets murky fast when it comes to the issue of punishment, Weiner said. Under LEOBR, the top official in the accused officer's agency has the final say on any punishment -- which would mean, theoretically, that Meadows could ultimately be the arbiter of his own fate.

"It's a blind alley for punishment of any police chief," Zarnoch said.

`Interesting discussion'

In this case, questions remain because the contents of the complaint, as required by law, are confidential. Whether the allegations even rise to the level of criminal wrongdoing remains to be established, experts and officials say.

"What do you do when you don't have a crime," but some recourse is needed? Weiner asked. "It's an interesting discussion."

Meadows, a former assistant state's attorney, holds a unique spot among Maryland's sheriffs because although he has a background connected to law enforcement, he has never worked as a sworn officer, said Michael F. Canning, executive director of the Maryland Sheriff's Association.

Jurisdictions vary

In six of the state's largest jurisdictions -- Baltimore City and Anne Arundel, Howard, Prince George's, Montgomery and Baltimore counties -- the sheriff's office provides courthouse security, transports prisoners and serves papers, Canning said. In the other 18 counties, including Harford, the sheriff's office is the primary law-enforcement agency.

That became the subject of debate in the early 1990s, mainly when problems in the detention center, which the sheriff's office oversees -- including an inmate's suspicious death and two guards' personal relationships with inmates -- led to a countywide referendum on moving to a county police force with an appointed chief, who would be accountable to the county executive rather than voters.

That measure was defeated in 1994, the same year Meadows won the sheriff's post.

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