Citizen Alleges Defamation For Police Report Blunder

SNOW HILL – County attorneys last week filed a motion to dismiss a $125,000 civil suit filed in June by an Ocean Pines man against the County Commissioners, the Worcester County Sheriff’s Office and its public information officer over an erroneous press release issued to local media outlets identifying the plaintiff as a suspect, not the victim, in a vehicle break-in last July.

On July 2, 2008, the Worcester County Sheriff’s Office issued a press release detailing a vehicle break-in at the Wal-Mart on Route 50 during which roughly $3,000 in personal property was stolen. According to the release, Sheriff’s deputies met with the victim who was able to provide a partial tag number for the suspects’ vehicle, which was later found by Ocean City police in the parking lot of a resort convenience store. The press release goes on to name those arrested in connection with the case including Arthur Bell, 51, of College Park, Md., and, erroneously, Gregory Beck, 38, of Ocean Pines. The release went on to say both Bell and Beck were arrested and charged with malicious destruction of property and theft and were held in the Worcester County Jail on $5,000 bonds.

The problem with the release is that Beck was the victim in the case and not an arrested suspect as it states. The press release was issued to local media outlets and eventually published in at least one. In June, Beck filed a $120,000 civil suit against the Sheriff’s office, its public information officer, the County Commissioners and the state of Maryland claiming defamation of character and injurious falsehood.

“The press release falsely, erroneously and negligently represented that Gregory Beck was a criminal suspect arrested and charged with malicious destruction of property and theft when, in fact, he was the victim of the crime which was the subject of the press release,” the complaint reads.

The complaint goes on to detail the damages allegedly suffered by Beck as a result of the erroneous press release issued by the sheriff’s office and its eventual publication.

“The defendants and their agents and employees negligently published false statements about Gregory Beck which exposed the plaintiff to public scorn, hatred, contempt and ridicule, thereby discouraging others in the community from having a good opinion of, or from associating or dealing with, the plaintiff both personally and in his business,” the complaint reads. “As a consequence, the plaintiff suffered actual damages for impairment of his personal and business reputation and standing in the community, personal humiliation, mental anguish and suffering, all of which was the direct result of the communications and publications at issue.”

Last week, attorneys for the County Commissioners filed a motion to dismiss the case, citing its failure to state a claim upon which relief can be granted and the often-evoked governmental immunity. The latter is a common defense used by government entities in civil suits and is currently the primary defense for the town of Ocean City in its civil suit over an escalator fall at the Convention Center three years ago.

“Since Beck’s claims against the county arose from the performance of a function inherently governmental, namely the operation of a law enforcement agency, the county is immune from suit and tort liability,” the motion to dismiss the case filed last week reads.

For the record, Bell pleaded guilty to malicious destruction of property last August and was sentenced to six months in jail, four months of which was then suspended. He was given credit for the 60 days he spent in jail awaiting trial, resulting in no new jail time. Bell was also fined $500 and placed on probation for one year.