Questions Surround County’s Recent Wrongful Search And Seizure Settlement

Questions Surround County’s Recent Wrongful Search And Seizure Settlement
File photo by Charlene Sharpe

SNOW HILL – A threatening post on social media. A Worcester County Sheriff’s Office investigation. A settlement. A trial board hearing.

More than a year after an Instagram post alluded to a potential school shooting at Stephen Decatur High School, questions remain about the ensuing actions of the Worcester County Sheriff’s Office. While details are scarce, officials have confirmed that Worcester County’s insurer settled a claim against the department based upon an alleged wrongful search and seizure.

Last September, an Instagram post by “timmy.the.shooter” alluded to a potential shooting at Stephen Decatur High School.

“There was a threat made in social media that we are investigating,” Lt. Ed Schreier of the Worcester County Sheriff’s Office told The Dispatch Sept. 29, 2016. “We put extra patrols out in an abundance of caution. The threat was not acted upon. Investigation is ongoing.”

Two weeks later, a ninth-grader confessed to making the post and was charged with disruption of school activities.

While that was the last the public heard of the incident, events that took place prior to that student being identified as a suspect became the subject of the Worcester County Sheriff’s Office’s first ever administrative trial board hearing May 9 and 10. The hearing came as a result of charges against deputies related to the interview of a suspect during the investigation into the Instagram post. A local family alleged the deputies violated their rights during a late-night interview at their residence and removed electronic devices from their home without authority.

Typically, a trial board hearing is held when an officer facing administrative charges opts not to accept disciplinary action and instead requests a hearing to plead his or her case to a panel of other law enforcement officers.

Though this newspaper didn’t become aware of it until after it was held, the May 9 and 10 hearing was open to the public. Anyone could have walked in and heard the charges against the two officers who’d requested the hearing and the testimony provided by witnesses in front of a board of law enforcement personnel. But while Maryland law required the hearing itself to be open to the public, regulations regarding the associated records are not so clear.

“It’s sort of uncharted water,” said Jason Levine, a Maryland assistant attorney general.

According to Levine, the legislature added a provision making Law Enforcement Officer’s Bill of Rights (LEOBR) hearings open to the public last year. While the hearings are now open to the public, they’re not technically subject to the state’s open meetings law.

“It is a unique animal,” Levine said.

When contacted in June about the trial board hearing, Schreier said it was a personnel matter. Sheriff Reggie Mason declined to comment. Through subsequent Maryland Public Information Act requests, though Schreier did agree to provide a copy of the audio recording of the May hearing, it was at a cost of $1,320.62 — an amount The Dispatch declined to pay.

“We have to charge by the hour at the rate of pay of the person doing the work,” Schreier said when questioned about the cost. “There was 14 hours of audio that had to be reviewed. The reviewer had 19 hours of time reviewing the audio and redacting what had to come out.”

What had to come out, he explained, was “any information regarding a juvenile” and “conversations that were private between parties.”

Michael Davey, attorney for Fraternal Order of Police Lodge 50, represented the two officers who were the subject of the hearing. He said they faced a “host” of charges.

“We were very pleased with the outcome,” he said. “The deputies were found not guilty of all of the most serious charges. Each was found guilty of one minor charge. They were not guilty of all of the factual allegations.”

Davey said the minor charge each was found guilty of “related to how they wrote their reports.”

While The Dispatch has few details of what occurred during the two-day hearing, the county’s insurer did settle a claim against the Sheriff’s Office — before the hearing took place.

“Over the past year, (June 30, 2016, to July 1, 2017) LGIT has settled one claim against the Office of the Sheriff of Worcester County, based upon an alleged wrongful search and seizure,” said Maureen Howarth, Worcester County’s attorney. “The settlement agreement contains a confidentiality provision.”

When asked why the settlement was approved before the hearing took place, Jim Bunting, president of the Worcester County Commissioners, declined to comment.

“I know about it and I don’t have any comment,” he said.

While the Sheriff’s Office is listed among the county’s departments on its website, the relationship is a unique one.

“The Sheriff’s Office, headed up by the sheriff, an elected official, is not a county department, but does derive its funding from Worcester County Government (WCG),” said Kim Moses, the county’s public information officer. “WCG has no direct authority over the operations of the Sheriff’s Office. However, the Sheriff’s Office is required to follow the county’s budget process, financial rules and regulations, and other county processes.”

Aside from presenting an annual budget request, representatives of the Sheriff’s Office typically come before the Worcester County Commissioners just a few times each year with special requests. Most recently, in August, the commissioners approved a request from the Sheriff’s Office to spend $40,000 on a new software program to update policies and procedures.

About The Author: Charlene Sharpe

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Charlene Sharpe has been with The Dispatch since 2014. A graduate of Stephen Decatur High School and the University of Richmond, she spent seven years with the Delmarva Media Group before joining the team at The Dispatch.