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Jury rejects Montgomery County woman’s excessive-force claims

A federal jury has ruled against a woman who alleged in an $18 million lawsuit that Montgomery County police officers roughed her up after responding to a call that she had tried to kill herself.

Melissa Dent claimed the four officers — without provocation — “slammed” her to the floor of her Montgomery Village home, kneed her in the back and face, twisted her arms and used a stun gun on her at least six times.

The officers countered that their use of force was appropriate once Dent became uncooperative, agitated and violent after they told her they would have to take her to a hospital for medical attention.

The U.S. District Court jury in Greenbelt last month found the officers had not violated Dent’s federal and state constitutional rights against unreasonable seizure.

Dent’s lead attorney, Cary J. Hansel III, said he and his client will “absolutely appeal, without a doubt” to the 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals if the presiding judge, Deborah K. Chasanow, rejects their post-trial motions.

“There’s a lot of sympathy for police officers,” said Hansel, of Joseph, Greenwald & Laake PA in Greenbelt. “[But] that kind of power comes with great responsibility. You have to be called to account when something goes wrong.”

Associate Montgomery County Attorney Patricia Lisehora Kane, who represented the officers, was on vacation last week and did not return a telephone message seeking comment on the case.

On Oct. 7, 2006, the officers responded to a 911 call from Sabrina Gorham saying that her friend Dent had swallowed pills and alcohol, according to papers filed with the court. Upon arriving at the house, the officers said, they found empty beer bottles and pill containers.

They also said they encountered Dent, who was slurring her words and whose eyes were red, watery and bloodshot.

The officers told Dent that police procedure required them to handcuff her and take her to a hospital. As they approached her, Dent swung a lit cigarette at Officer Adam Siegelbaum, the defense said in court papers.

Siegelbaum and Officer John Mullaney responded by bringing Dent to the ground, where Officer Kimberly Wilson held Dent’s legs. Dent fought back, kicking Wilson and trying to bite Siegelbaum in the knee, the officers said. (Officer Jennifer Phoenix also was at the scene.)

The officers said they warned Dent to stop fighting or they would use a stun gun on her. When Dent refused to comply, the officers used the device multiple times before handcuffing her.

Dent said she neither attempted suicide nor threatened the officers in any way. In papers filed with the district court, Dent said she “was, at worst, a passive resistor thereby causing defendants’ use of force to be excessive.”

Dent was taken to Shady Grove Adventist Hospital in Rockville, where her blood alcohol level was measured at .284. Dent was then transferred to Potomac Ridge Behavioral Center, where she was treated for three days.

Clarification sought

In a lawsuit filed April 8, 2008, Dent alleged that the officers used excessive force against her in violation of the U.S. Constitution’s Fourth Amendment and Article 26 of the Maryland Declaration of Rights. She sought $4 million in punitive damages against each of the four officers and a total of $2 million in compensation for medical expenses, missed work and pain and suffering, including emotional distress and psychological harm.

The officers maintained that they “used that force which was necessary to control the belligerent and combative plaintiff and transport her to the hospital for the treatment she so desperately needed.”

After both sides rested their case last month, Chasanow instructed the jury that Dent, to prove her claim, would have to show that the officers “acted with the intent to deprive her of her rights or with reckless indifference to her rights” under the federal or state constitutions.

The jury, during its deliberations, sent a letter to Chasanow seeking “clarification” of the distinction between “intentional,” “reckless” and “negligent” acts.

“An act is intentional if it is done voluntarily and deliberately and not because of mistake, accident, negligence or other innocent reason,” Chasanow responded March 28.

“An act is reckless if done in conscious disregard of its known probable consequences,” the judge added. “In other words, even if a defendant did not intentionally seek to deprive plaintiff of her rights, if nevertheless she or he purposely disregarded the high probability that her or his actions would deprive plaintiff of her rights, then this aspect of the claim would be satisfied. On the other hand, negligence or lack of due care is the unintentional failure to exercise ordinary, reasonable care and, unless rising to the level of recklessness, would not be enough for liability.”

The jury rendered its verdict for the officers later that day.

MELISSA DENT V. MONTGOMERY COUNTY POLICE DEPARTMENT ET AL.

Court:

U.S. District Court, Greenbelt

Case No.:

DKC-08-CV-886

Judge:

Deborah K. Chasanow

Outcome:

Defense Verdict

Dates:

Event: Oct. 7, 2006

Suit filed: April 8, 2008

Verdict: March 28, 2011

Plaintiff’s Attorney:

Cary J. Hansel III and Levi S. Zaslow of Joseph, Greenwald & Laake P.A.

Defendant’s Attorney:

Patricia Lisehora Kane of the Montgomery County Attorney’s Office.

Counts:

Deprivation of federal and state civil and constitutional rights.