County, Sheriff’s Office Dismissed In Defamation Suit

SNOW HILL – The Worcester County Commissioners and the County Sheriff’s Office last week were dismissed as defendants in the $125,000 civil suit filed in June by an Ocean Pines man erroneously named as a defendant in a press release issued to local media, but the case moves on against the author of the document.

During a hearing last week, a Circuit Court judge ruled favorably on motions to dismiss the commissioners and the Sheriff’s Office as defendants in the defamation case, the former because of governmental immunity and the latter because the sheriff’s office is not a separate legal entity capable of being sued. However, the judge denied a motion to dismiss filed by Sgt. Ed Schreier, the public information officer who authored and issued the erroneous release.

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 when 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 went 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.

The problem with the release was 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, Schreier, the county commissioners and the state of Maryland claiming defamation of character and injurious falsehood.

With the motions rulings last week, the county commissioners and the sheriff’s department have now been dismissed as defendants in the case. Schreier filed a similar motion to dismiss, pointing out the public information officer was acting as state personnel and, therefore, immune to the suit.

“Because the plaintiff does not allege the defendant, Sgt. Schreier, acted outside the scope of his employment, with malice or gross negligence, Sgt. Schreier is immune from suit,” the motion to dismiss reads.

However, the judge denied motion to dismiss, allowing the case to move forward against the sheriff’s office public information officer.

Meanwhile, a memorandum filed by the plaintiff’s attorney, Pete Cosby, in answer to the county commissioners’ motion to dismiss the elected officials from the case calls into the question the very need for press releases issued by law enforcement agencies. State and local law enforcement agencies routinely issue press releases to media outlets about crimes, arrests and investigations in an effort to disseminate the information to the public, but Cosby’s answer to the commissioners’ motion to dismiss suggests the practice is essentially useless and beneficial to no one other than the agencies that issue them.

“There is no law requiring the Sheriff’s Office to issue press releases,” the answer reads. “The county lends its name and credibility to the Worcester County Sheriff’s Office, which performs hybrid services for the county. One of these hybrid services is the creation and release of press releases purporting to name people publicly who have allegedly committed crimes.”

The answer argues there is no reason for the county to issue press releases on criminal activity. It goes on to say issuing press releases on criminal arrests and investigations, such as the erroneous one that named Beck as a defendant, and not the victim, is not a governmental function, and therefore, the county and its sheriff’s office should not be protected by immunity.

“These press releases are not duties imposed upon the county by law and they are, therefore, not governmental in nature,” the answer reads. “The press releases are elective, proprietary notices that the county endorses under its name and authority. There is no benefit to the general public served by such press releases other than the satiation of the curiosity of those members of the general public prone to gossip and the self-promotion of the law enforcement agencies voluntarily reporting the alleged criminal activity.”

The general public largely relies on the local media to act as a conduit for information from its government including law enforcement, typically in the form of press releases. However, in his formal answer to the commissioners’ motion to dismiss the defamation suit, Cosby suggests members of the public can find the information on their own if they so desire.

“A member of the general public who desires or needs to know about criminal activity can readily go to the official sources in the public record and be informed,” the answer reads. “The media can do its own research and it can risk the consequences of negligent reporting.”