$18.6M Lawsuit Claims Police Brutality
SNOW HILL - Six Ocean City Police Department officers as well as the town of Ocean City this week were named defendants in a 93-count civil lawsuit seeking nearly $19 million in damages for an incident last July alleging assault, battery, excessive force and false imprisonment among others in a bizarre situation that started with a case of mistaken identity and ended with the arrest of the plaintiffs for failing to cooperate with police.
The civil suit, filed on Tuesday in Snow Hill by attorney Sherwood Westcott of Westcott and Rowe in Salisbury, names six OCPD officers as defendants in eight separate counts each for the two different plaintiffs in the incident. The town of Ocean City is also named as a defendant as 'respondeat superior,' which essentially means the town, as the officer's employer, is responsible for their actions while on duty.
All in all, 93 separate counts are listed in the suit, each seeking $200,000 in damages, resulting in a total of $18.6 million being sought by the plaintiffs in the case. Westcott said this week his clients are seeking the $200,000 in each count against each defendant individually and not a cumulative award for the entire case.
'A lot of times, these cases don't seek a cumulative amount for all of the counts combined,' he said. 'The reason we're charging everything we can under the law is that some things get thrown out over the course of the lawsuit.'
OCPD Officers Grason Kershner, Christopher Costa, Frank Soscia and Officer Rutter, Corporal Ray Land and Pfc. Frank Wrench are named as defendants in the civil suit filed this week. The counts against each officer named include assault, battery, false imprisonment, false arrest, and excessive force, violation of Maryland Declaration of Rights and violation of U.S. Constitution. The town of Ocean City is named in the latter two counts because it is the employer of the officers identified as defendants in the case.
The two plaintiffs in the case are Demar Leonard and Brandon Bishop, both now 18, and both of Berlin, who were both juveniles at the time of the incident in question last July. Leonard and Bishop were in front of the 7-Eleven convenience store on North Division Street last July 16 when they were approached by OCPD officers. The police believed at the time Leonard and Bishop matched the description of two suspects wanted in connection with a shoplifting spree at the CVS store on 120th Street earlier that week.
In the course of the questioning, Leonard and Bishop allegedly failed to provide identification and generally refused to cooperate, according to police reports on the incident, which eventually escalated into a physical altercation between the officers and the plaintiffs, who were ultimately arrested and charged with disorderly conduct and resisting arrest among others.
Westcott said the suit filed this week hinged on the initial stop of Leonard and Bishop, whom he alleges just loosely match the description of the suspects in the CVS theft days earlier. Everything that happened after that points to brutality and assault and the false arrest of his clients, who should not have been detained in the first place, according to Westcott.
'The bottom line is, they had no reason to stop these kids,' he said. 'They just happened to be in Ocean City and happened to vaguely resemble the suspects in the other case. Even the judge, who saw the pictures of the suspects during the criminal trial, said these kids in no way resembled the other suspects.'
On July 16, OCPD officers approached the two juveniles in front of the 7-Eleven because they suspected they were involved in the CVS thefts earlier that week. Leonard and Bishop initially refused to provide any identification and told police they had just arrived in town and could not have had anything to do with the robbery.
Bishop eventually gave his name and told the officers any further questions should be directed to his father, who was on his way to pick up the boys. Leonard eventually provided his name, but could not produce any identification. When Bishop's father arrived, who is also Leonard's uncle, the two youths attempted to walk away and get into his car, but they were detained.
According to police reports, the officers continued to ask for identification and detained Leonard and Bishop until they could ascertain whether or not they were the suspects in the CVS burglary. During this time, Leonard allegedly ignored several requests from the officers not to reach into his pockets, and when the officers finally decided to restrain Leonard, the situation escalated.
The crux of the case appears to be the difference between the police reports and the statement of facts in the suit filed this week. The police reports suggest Leonard became extremely combative when the officers attempted to restrain him with handcuffs. The suit filed this week alleges Leonard was 'approached from behind and choked, yanked to the ground and thrown into the side of a paddy wagon before four officer piled on top of him, pushing him into the ground and pulling at his limbs.'
In either case, Leonard was eventually taken into custody, but not before launching into a racially charged, expletive laced tirade about his unfair treatment in front of about 20 people who had gathered at the scene. Leonard was charged with two counts of second-degree assault, resisting arrest and disorderly conduct. When his parents picked him up after booking, they allegedly found he had been badly beaten and required medical attention, according to court documents.
The family initially pursued brutality charges against the officers involved and an internal investigation into the allegations was initiated, but nothing ever came of the brutality claims. In January, Leonard was found guilty of two counts of assault, resisting arrest and disorderly conduct in District Court, but Westcott immediately filed an appeal. In Circuit Court in May, the convictions against Leonard were overturned on appeal, which provided the catalyst for the lawsuit filed this week.
When contacted yesterday, Ocean City Solicitor Guy Ayres said he had not yet been served with the lawsuit and, therefore, could not comment on the case. Ayres did say he would likely represent the town in the case provided there was no conflict of interest and that a decision would be made later about representation for the individual officers named in the suit.