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Court of Appeals reinstates $200K award

Maryland’s top court has reinstated a $200,000 damages award to a woman who was roused from her bed and assaulted by Prince George’s County deputy sheriffs executing an arrest warrant.

In its 7-0 decision, the Court of Appeals said Kimberly Jones provided sufficient evidence at trial that the state had negligently trained the deputies regarding the limits of their constitutional authority under an arrest warrant.

That authority is limited by the Fourth Amendment to entering the home of the person to be arrested, the Court of Appeals said.

But the person named on the deputies’ arrest warrant, Lamarr Wallace, did not live at Jones’ Greenbelt apartment, the court added in reinstating a Prince George’s County Circuit Court jury’s award to Jones.

Her attorney hailed the decision not only as a victory for Jones but for all Marylanders.

“The court really staunchly defended our Fourth Amendment rights and the right to be secure in our homes,” said Cary J. Hansel III, of Joseph, Greenwald & Laake PA in Greenbelt. “Just because they [deputies] have an arrest warrant for John Doe, they cannot come storming your house.”

The Prince George’s County Sheriff’s Office is “studying the opinion to determine whether or not our current training standards are consistent with the elements identified by the Court of Appeals,” said office spokeswoman Sharon R. Taylor. “The sheriff [Melvin C. High] has asked our inspector general and attorney counsel to take a look at it and look at what we’re doing.”

The intermediate Court of Special Appeals had overturned the jury’s award to Jones last March, saying she had not provided sufficient evidence of negligent training. In particular, the court said Jones had presented no expert testimony regarding the appropriate standards of police training and how the state deviated from them.

But the Court of Appeals, in reversing that decision last week, said expert testimony was not required in this case because jurors could rely on their common sense in seeing how the officers’ actions diverged from the law regarding the execution of arrest warrants.

That law, as stated by the Supreme Court in its 1981 Steagald v. United States decision, generally prohibits officers with arrest warrants from entering a home other than the arrestee’s, even if the officers have reason to believe the person is inside, the Court of Appeals stated. The officers would need a search warrant to search that other person’s home, unless they had the resident’s consent or an emergency existed inside, the court said.

“The jury in the case at bar, after being properly instructed on the applicable Fourth Amendment law by the trial court, needed only its common knowledge or experience to understand that an officer violates the Fourth Amendment if the officer crosses the threshold of a home (here, by placing his foot in a home’s doorway in order to block the door from closing) without proper authority to do so,” Judge Mary Ellen Barbera wrote for the court.

Jones, who worked the midnight-to-8 a.m. shift at Father Flanagan’s shelter for teenagers in Washington, D.C., was asleep when Deputy Sheriffs Billy Falby and Gerald Henderson knocked on the door of her one-bedroom apartment at 11:20 a.m. Sept. 15, 2006. When they announced they were from the sheriff’s department, Jones put on a robe and opened the door, according to her lawsuit.

Falby immediately put his foot in the doorway and asked for Wallace. Jones said Wallace, the son of a friend, did not live there.

Falby then entered the apartment without asking Jones for her permission, the lawsuit stated.

Meanwhile, Henderson, using a baton, shattered the glass patio door and entered the apartment through the back, the lawsuit added.

Jones, thinking the men were criminals posing as deputies, began to struggle with them. She would later testify she was sprayed with pepper spray, beaten with a baton and had hair pulled from her scalp before breaking free.

Falby and Henderson caught up with her in the parking lot, where they arrested her on charges of assaulting an officer and resisting arrest. The charges were not prosecuted after neither officer appeared for trial.

Jones, however, was fired from her job at the shelter when the charges appeared on her annual criminal background check, according to the lawsuit.

She sued the state in Prince George’s County Circuit Court on Nov. 27, 2007. She alleged many claims, including false arrest, false imprisonment, trespass, battery, malicious prosecution and negligent training. The negligent-training claim was severed from the lawsuit, as it was based on evidence not directly related to the events at the apartment, and held for a second, separate trial.

At the first trial, a jury found the state liable for battery and awarded Jones $5,000 in non-economic damages.

At the negligent-training trial, a jury in 2009 awarded Jones $200,000 in non-economic damages, $50,000 in lost wages and $11,000 in other economic damages, for a total of $261,000. The circuit court capped the damages at $200,000 under the Maryland Tort Claims Act.

In reinstating the award, the Court of Appeals said the jury could have reasonably concluded from the deputies’ testimony about their training that they erroneously believed they had the authority to enter a home that did not belong to the arrestee so long as they believed he was inside.

David R. Paulson, a spokesman for Maryland Attorney General Douglas F. Gansler, stated in an email that “the decision is under review.”

WHAT THE COURT HELD

Case:

Jones v. State of Maryland, CA No. 37, Sept. Term 2011. Reported. Opinion by Barbera, J. Argued Nov. 7, 2011. Filed Feb. 22, 2012.

Issue:

Did the plaintiff present sufficient evidence, even without expert testimony, that the sheriff’s deputies who entered her home with an arrest warrant were negligently trained?

Holding:

Yes; the jury validly relied on their own “common knowledge” and the law regarding arrest warrants to conclude the deputies were negligently trained.

Counsel:

Cary J. Hansel III for petitioner; Matthew J. Fader for respondent.

RecordFax # 12-0222-24.