County Wants Out Of OC Police Excessive Force Lawsuit

OCEAN CITY — Worcester County is seeking to be dismissed as a defendant in a civil suit filed last month by a Silver Spring, Md. man who is alleging he was roughed up by Ocean City Police during his arrest and subsequent detention.

In July, Silver Spring resident John Henry, through his attorney, filed suit in U.S. District Court against various OCPD officers and public safety aides, OCPD Chief Ross Buzzuro and, somewhat oddly, Worcester County, alleging he was injured when thrown into a police transport vehicle and injured further when he was handled roughly at the Public Safety Building for detention and processing. According to the complaint, an allegedly intoxicated Henry was first encountered by Ocean City Police on August 4, 2013 near the corner of 9th Street and Edgewater Ave.

The complaint alleges OCPD officers met with the admittedly intoxicated Henry and told him to move on. However, despite following the officers’ orders, Henry was then taken into custody, thrown into a police transport van with excessive force, was not secured with any belt and was subjected to a constant battering to his face and body during his entire trip to the intake facility and holding cell. According to the complaint, once at the Public Safety Building, Henry was allegedly thrown face-first into a cinderblock interior wall in a cell suffering further injury that ultimately led to his transport to Shock Trauma in Baltimore.

It’s important to note the alleged rough handling of prisoners by overzealous police officers has been a recurring national theme in recent months. It’s also important to note while Henry, through the complaint, alleges he was innocent throughout the incident and followed the officers’ orders, he was ultimately charged with three counts of second-degree assault and resisting arrest. He was convicted of the latter and was sentenced to five days and fined $1,000.

The OCPD officers were named as defendants in the federal suit for their individual roles in the handling of the plaintiff. Buzzuro was named as a defendant in the case for allegedly failing to train and prepare his officers in the proper handling of an intoxicated prisoner. Oddly, Worcester County was named as a defendant for allegedly being the governmental entity charged with overseeing the OCPD and the training of its officers. Even more oddly, the Town of Ocean City was not named as a defendant.

For those reasons, Worcester County this week filed a motion to dismiss, or in the alternative a motion for summary judgment, eliminating the county as a defendant in the case.

“It is apparent from the face of the complaint that Henry fails to recognize the dichotomy between Worcester County and Ocean City,” the motion to dismiss the county as a defendant reads. “The county and city are both political subdivisions of the state, with each separate governmental entity being fully capable of suing and being sued in its own right.”

According to Worcester’s motion to dismiss, police function in the county is performed by the Sheriff’s Office. In Ocean City, the law enforcement function is performed by the town’s police department, which is a department of the executive branch of the government.

“In light of this framework, and the evidence submitted in support of this motion, it is apparent that there is no valid reason why Worcester County should be a party to this action,” the motion reads. “The arrest alleged in the complaint was affected in Ocean City by officers of the Ocean City Police Department. Since no county agent or Worcester County Deputy Sheriff is alleged to have played any role in the events described in the complaint, the pleading should be dismissed with prejudice as to the county.”

Meanwhile, the suit alleges civil rights violations including unreasonable search and seizure, excessive force and deprivation of liberty among other things. The suit seeks punitive damages against the named defendants in excess of $75,000 and compensatory damages in excess of $75,000. The complaint alleges the named defendants were negligent in their handling of an allegedly intoxicated individual.

“The defendants had no adequate training regarding the arrest, investigatory stop or reasonable use of force regarding the detention of an alleged intoxicated individual, despite the fact that Ocean City, Maryland is a well-known vacation spot which promotes, advertises and encourages partying and drinking alcoholic beverages by its tourists at its various business establishments, which results in hundreds of arrests, detentions and seizures annually,” the complaint reads.

The complaint filed in July points out an alleged history of excessive force by the OCPD and cites a couple of examples including the handling of a pregnant woman on the beach in 2013, who ultimately needed an emergency C-section after a physical confrontation with police. However, in that case, video shows the woman being combative toward police.

“There is a clear pattern of practice by the Ocean City Police Department of treating young or intoxicated individuals with a great deal of unwarranted and inappropriate force when they are not acting in a violent or criminal manner,” the complaint filed in July reads. “The plaintiff in this case was not being violent, had been sleeping when he was suddenly aroused, was not driving a motor vehicle and obeyed the officer’s request to leave the area, at which time the officer detained and arrested him.”

Again, it’s important to note while the plaintiff asserts he was innocent and followed the officers’ orders, he was charged with assault and ultimately convicted of resisting arrest and sentenced to jail time. Nonetheless, the complaint alleges a continued pattern of mishandling intoxicated suspects in a resort town that welcomes the behavior.

“This pattern of treating visitors, who often are invited to relax and enjoy the alcohol available at local taverns, with force so great as that in this case can and does lead to permanent injury and is endemic and should not be tolerated,” the complaint reads.

According to the complaint, “the excessive force in the warrantless stop set into motion the chain of events that led to an unauthorized and warrantless illegal search and seizure and the use of excessive force by the defendants caused the plaintiff to be further detained and physically injured, suffer pain and suffering, mental anguish and distress and permanent impairment in violation of the plaintiff’s rights under the Fourth, Fifth and 14th Amendments to the Constitution of the United States.”