A U.S. appeals court has dismissed an appeal from eight Prince George’s County deputy sheriffs who had hoped to avoid civil liability following a 1990 drug raid in which a mentally retarded minor was injured.
All three justices hearing the case for the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit in Richmond voted last week to dismiss the appeal.
They wrote that the deputies’ actions were not necessarily protected by a law that “shields law enforcement officials from civil liability to the extent their conduct … does not violate the constitutional rights” of another person.
“Qualified immunity is lost by [use of] excessive force,” said Karl George Feissner, lead counsel for the family of the injured youth.
The decision means the eight deputies may face a civil suit from the family of the injured teen, said Lawrence Fletcher-Hill, the Maryland assistant attorney general who represented the deputies.
Feissner said the family expects to be back in court in about five or six months.
Fletcher-Hill said he strongly believes “the way the deputies acted was reasonable under the circumstances.”
The case stems from a July 14, 1990, incident, in which Prince George’s County deputy sheriffs and Hyattsville police raided a Hyattsville home.
Hyattsville police believed PCP was being sold by Peter Brighindi Jr., at the house he lived in with his parents, court documents show. The officials obtained a search warrant.
At 2 a.m. that morning, a team of 24 deputies and Hyattsville police officers entered the house and began searching for drugs, court records show. The deputies had been given a physical description of Brighindi before the raid and were told where his bedroom was located.
When the deputies entered Brighindi’s bedroom, they found Jason and Michael Finelli, two mentally retarded brothers who, along with their parents, were staying with the Brighindis. The Finellis were from Connecticut.
Jason, then 15, and with an IQ of about 36, refused to get out of bed at the deputies’ request, court records show. A “violent altercation” ensued, records show.
Several deputies forced Jason from his bed, wrestled him to the ground using their batons and handcuffed him, according to court records.
No evidence of any drug involvement was found in the house, Feissner said.
“The deputies thought that they may have been dealing with a PCP user,” Fletcher-Hill said. “Based on the information they had, they believed PCP was involved and they know the danger of violence that can be associated with that.”
Jason was taken to the former Leland Hospital in Riverdale. He was treated for lacerations to his head and face, abrasions to his neck and chest, an injury to his eye, and a wound in his side from a stun dart, court records say.
“Normally a law officer acting within the scope of his duty and without malice can act in an unconstitutional manner as long as he doesn’t use excessive force,” Feissner said. “But in this case, they were definitely excessive.”
Fletcher-Hill disagreed. He said the deputies’ actions were not excessive and that many of them didn’t even see how the scuffle started.
“The deputies used escalating force in order to respond to [Jason’s] resistance,” Fletcher-Hill said. “Some of the deputies only became involved when they saw him dragging deputies into the hall.” The eight deputies are still on the force and have not faced any departmental sanctions, said Irv Smith, spokesman for the Office of the Sheriff of Prince George’s County. -30-