ANNAPOLIS – The Maryland Court of Special Appeals Thursday upheld a Harford County Circuit Court ruling that Port Deposit and Samuel Maranto, the town’s former police chief, can be sued by an Oregon man who claims his constitutional rights were violated in an arrest more than four years ago.
The town and Maranto had argued that they were immune from being sued because Maranto’s actions stemmed from his official capacity as police chief.
The case stemmed from a bar brawl in the early hours of Nov. 14, 1992.
Pierre Petetit, a resident of Ashland, Ore., had been drinking for several hours at a bar in Harford County when he got into an argument. Upon leaving the bar about 2 a.m., Petetit was physically assaulted by several patrons.
When Petetit jumped into his truck, some of his assailants began throwing rocks at him, and one tried climbing onto the vehicle. Petitit started the truck and began to leave. At this point, one of his assailants was hit by his truck. Petetit fled, driving in the direction of the Bel Air State Police Barracks for protection.
Maranto, then the Port Deposit police chief, was off-duty and in his personal car on his way home. He and his passenger saw the assault on Petetit and the patron struck by Petetit’s truck. Because Petetit did not stop to give aid, Maranto told his passenger to get out and call the police, and then began to give chase.
Petetit thought that one of his assailants was following him, and sped up. Maranto thought Petetit was becoming a danger to himself and others, so he fired shots at Petetit’s truck in order to stop him.
Petetit, not knowing that it was a police officer behind him, began to drive even faster. When he attempted a u-turn to get a state trooper’s attention, his front-right tire blew out and forced him to stop.
Maranto stopped his car, got out with his gun drawn and identified himself as a police officer. He pulled Petetit from his truck, threw him to the ground, handcuffed him and waited for a state trooper to arrive.
Petetit sued in Harford County Circuit Court, alleging that his constitutional right to due process was violated by the arrest. Among other additional charges, he claimed he had been assaulted and that Port Deposit had been negligent in the hiring and supervision of Maranto.
The town and Maranto succeeded in moving the case to U.S. District Court, which dismissed the case when the Petetits indicated they preferred to proceed in a Maryland court.
The Petetits refiled their suit in Harford County. In response, the town and police chief made their claims of immunity. When Harford County Circuit Judge Cypert O. Whitfill denied those motions, the defendants appealed.
In the town’s case, the Court of Special Appeals said a municipality “is not entitled to governmental immunity for a constitutional tort [or wrong] committed by one of its agencies or employees….”
But the three-judge panel of the appellate court, in a lengthy opinion by Judge Theodore G. Bloom, ruled that Maranto could not appeal the question of his immunity until certain facts of the case had been decided in a trial.
Ordinarily, the court noted, only final judgments may be appealed to a higher court. There are certain exceptions, called “collateral orders” — offshoots of the primary case that are sufficiently important and conclusive that they may be appealed immediately.
The court ruled that Maranto’s claim of immunity did not qualify as a collateral order. This is because immunity is granted to a public official only when he is determined to have acted without malice. And the very question of malice, the court said, was one for the trial court to take up.
“From Maranto’s conduct, an inference can be drawn that he became enraged at what appeared to him to be grossly reckless conduct by Petetit, endangering others on the highway, and that he fired at Petetit or Petetit’s vehicle with the intention of hurting Petetit,” Bloom wrote. Attorneys for Petetit, the town and Maranto were unavailable for comment. -30-