SNOW HILL – The town of Ocean City and six OCPD officers named as defendants in a multi-million dollar police brutality civil suit from an incident in the resort over two years ago this week reached a settlement with the plaintiffs that will pay the latter a small fraction of what they were seeking.
Six Ocean City Police Department officers as well as the town of Ocean City in July 2007 were named defendants in a 93-count civil lawsuit seeking nearly $19 million in damages for an incident in July 2006 alleging assault, battery, excessive force and false imprisonment among others in a bizarre situation that started with a case of mistaken identity and ended with the arrest of the plaintiffs for failing to cooperate with police.
On Monday, the parties entered an agreement effectively dismissing the case with prejudice. According to City Solicitor Guy Ayres, who represented the town and the six OCPD officers named as defendants, the agreed-upon settlement will award one plaintiff, Demar Leonard, now 19, of Berlin, $60,000, and the second plaintiff, Brandon Bishop, also now 19, of Berlin, just $3,000, for a sum total of $63,000.
Ayres said this week given the complexity of the suit, reaching a settlement agreement was the best course of action for the defendants in the case.
“Other than the fact that we don’t like to pay out anything, I think this was a wise settlement for the town and the various defendants,” he said. “Sometimes you weigh these things and the smartest route is to reach an agreement.”
The civil suit, filed last July in Snow Hill by attorney Sherwood Westcott of Westcott and Rowe in Salisbury, named six OCPD officers as defendants in eight separate counts each for the two different plaintiffs in the incident. The town of Ocean City was also named a defendant as “respondeat superior,” which essentially means the town, as the officers’ employer, was responsible for their actions while on duty.
All in all, 93 separate counts were listed in the suit, each seeking $200,000 in damages, resulting in a total of $18.6 million being sought by the two plaintiffs in the case identified Leonard and Bishop, who were juveniles at the time of the incident in question in July 2006.
OCPD Officers Grason Kershner, Christopher Costa, Frank Soscia and Officer Rutter, Corporal Ray Land and Pfc. Frank Wrench were named as defendants in the civil suit. The counts against each officer named include assault, battery, false imprisonment, false arrest, and excessive force, violation of Maryland Declaration of Rights and violation of U.S. Constitution. The town of Ocean City was named in the latter two counts because it is the employer of the officers identified as defendants in the case.
The case slogged forward for over a year with several hearings or trial dates postponed or continued along the way before the hearing on Monday during which an accord was reached. Ayres, who could not reveal too many details about the settlement other than the final figures, said the defendants were wise to make the deal despite a desire to take the case to trial.
“As an attorney, you always prefer to try a case,” he said. “In this case, Mr. Leonard’s detention and arrest was called into question. It would be up to a jury to determine if it was a lawful arrest. If it wasn’t, and Leonard spent a considerable amount of time in jail, then you’re at risk if you let the case be heard by a jury.”
Leonard and Bishop were in front of the 7-Eleven convenience store on North Division Street on July 16, 2006 when they were approached by OCPD officers. The police believed at the time Leonard and Bishop matched the description of two suspects wanted in connection with a shoplifting spree at the CVS store on 120th Street earlier that week.
In the course of the questioning, Leonard and Bishop allegedly failed to provide identification and generally refused to cooperate, according to police reports. The incident eventually escalated into a physical altercation between the officers and the plaintiffs, who were ultimately arrested and charged with disorderly conduct and resisting arrest among others.
From the beginning, Westcott said the civil suit hinged on the initial stop of Leonard and Bishop. Everything that happened after that pointed to brutality and assault and the false arrest of his clients, who should not have been detained in the first place, according to Westcott.
“The bottom line is, they had no reason to stop these kids,” he said in an earlier interview. “They just happened to be in Ocean City and happened to vaguely resemble the suspects in the other case. Even the judge, who saw the pictures of the suspects during the criminal trial, said these kids in no way resembled the other suspects.”
Last January, Leonard was found guilty of two counts of assault, resisting arrest and disorderly conduct in District Court, but Westcott immediately filed an appeal. In Circuit Court in May 2007, the convictions against Leonard were overturned on appeal, which provided the catalyst for the roughly $19 million civil suit filed by the defendants.