The Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals in Richmond ruled this week that three Anne Arundel County police chiefs and the county government are not liable for damages for a 1990 incident in which a woman alleged an on-duty police officer raped her.
A three-judge panel on Tuesday upheld a ruling by the U.S. District Court in Baltimore that police chief George Wellham and former chiefs Maxwell Frye and William Lindsey were not responsible for the alleged rape of Erin Jones on Nov. 15, 1990.
The judges found that the chiefs and the county could not be penalized for keeping the police officer on the force, despite a 1979 accusation of sexual misconduct from another citizen.
If the tenuous link between the 1979 and 1990 incidents were enough, “every depredation of this sort would give rise to municipal liability,” wrote Senior Circuit Judge J. Dickson Phillips Jr., in Tuesday’s decision.
The civil suit stems from a 1990 incident, in which Jones was stopped by Officer Michael Dennis Ziegler, 44, on suspicion of driving while intoxicated.
Court records show Ziegler asked Jones into his police cruiser, saying she was not under arrest and that he would give her a ride home. Ziegler, an 18-year police veteran from Glen Burnie, drove the 23-year-old to a church parking lot where Jones claimed he raped her in the front seat of his car.
Ziegler was charged with second-degree rape, but pleaded guilty to a lesser charge of misconduct in office. He received a one-year suspended sentence and five years’ probation. He also agreed to resign from the police force.
Jones won a civil suit against Ziegler in 1994, in which she claimed her civil rights had been violated. A federal jury awarded Jones more than $1 million in damages.
She then filed a separate suit in U.S. District Court in Baltimore, against the three police chiefs and Anne Arundel County. She alleged that because Ziegler had been involved in a sex-related misconduct case in 1979, he should have been discharged from the force.
Ziegler was never criminally charged in that 1979 incident. But following an internal affairs investigation, then-chief Frye punished Ziegler with one month’s suspension without pay, a transfer to a desk assignment, loss of his police car and a counseling requirement.
The U.S. District Court dismissed all of Jones’ claims against the chiefs and the county, saying they were not liable for the 1990 incident. She appealed the decision to the Fourth Circuit Court.
“Frye’s 1979 and 1980 decisions respecting Ziegler’s retention and duties could not, as a matter of law, be found the sufficiently direct cause of Ms. Jones’ rape by Ziegler some 10 years later,” Phillips wrote.
Jones’ attorney, William Francis Gately, said he was “a little mystified” by the decision. “It’s mind-boggling,” he added. John Francis Breads Jr., assistant county attorney for Anne Arundel County, who represented the police chiefs and the government, did not return repeated phone calls Thursday. -30-