Civil Suit Settled

SNOW HILL – A civil suit filed last June in Circuit Court by an Ocean Pines man erroneously named as an arrested suspect in a press release issued to media by the Worcester County Sheriff’s Office was settled last week, reportedly for $5,000.

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 with roughly $3,000 in personal property 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 reported Bell and Beck were arrested and charged with malicious destruction of property and theft.

The problem was Beck was the victim in the case and not an arrested suspect as it stated. The press release was issued to local media outlets and eventually published in at least one. Last June, Beck filed a $120,000 civil suit against the sheriff’s office, Sgt. Edward Schreier, who prepared and distributed the press release, the Worcester County Commissioners and the State of Maryland, claiming defamation of character and injurious falsehood.

In October, the commissioners and the sheriff’s office were dismissed as defendants in the civil suit. The judge in the case ruled favorably on the commissioners’ motion to dismiss them as defendants because of governmental immunity. The sheriff’s office was also dismissed as a defendant because it is not a separate legal entity capable of being sued. However, the case continued with Schreier and the state of Maryland as defendants.

The case was set to be heard last week with a trial date laid in for April 5. However, the remaining parties in the suit reached a settlement agreement paying the plaintiff $5,000 in damages before the case went to trial.

From the beginning, the case questioned the need for press releases about criminal activity and arrests issued by law enforcement agencies. While the case centered specifically around the damages caused to Beck by the erroneous press release that named him as a suspect and not a victim, Beck’s attorney Pete Cosby, in answer to an earlier motion to dismiss the case, called into question the very need for criminal press releases.

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 argued the practice is essentially useless and beneficial to no one other than the agencies that issue them or the media outlets that receive them.

“The press releases are elective, proprietary notices that the county endorses under its name and authority,” Cosby’s answer to the commissioners’ motion to dismiss read. “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, Cosby suggested in his formal answer members of the public can find the information on their own if they wish.

“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.”