ANNAPOLIS – The Court of Special Appeals Thursday reversed the demotion of a Somerset County correctional officer who made lewd jokes and touched a female student while teaching a CPR class for police recruits.
The court said the state’s corrections commissioner “blatantly attempted to circumvent” an earlier ruling on the matter, which said only the supervisor who could hire or fire the correctional officer could start proceedings for his demotion.
It is unclear whether the ruling will be appealed to the state’s highest court.
Assistant Attorney General Alan D. Eason said he hadn’t seen the opinion and could not comment on it. “Even if I could read it today, I haven’t talked with the commissioner or anyone else,” he said.
The lawyer for Peter Michael Howe, a correctional officer with the Eastern Correctional Institute in Westover, said she hoped the state would let the issue lie. “It’s been before the Court of Special Appeals twice. There’s no need to appeal it any further,” said the lawyer, Hillary Galloway Davis.
Problems started for Howe in May 1992 when, during a CPR class he was teaching, he referred to his wife’s breasts, touched a police recruit on the thigh and made sexual comments about a doll used during the class, court records state.
“If I have offended anyone, f— you, you’ll hear worse on the street,” court records say Howe told the class.
The recruits had been training to be part-time police officers in Ocean City and had been warned that parts of the class might be offensive, court records state. Howe was in full uniform but was not acting as a correctional officer.
The warden at the time, Kenneth E. Taylor, recommended the state take no action against Howe.
But state Corrections Department head Richard Lanham disagreed, and the state demoted Howe from captain to lieutenant in late 1992. The demotion brought with it a pay cut.
On appeal in 1994, the Somerset County Circuit Court overturned Howe’s demotion because Lanham had started the disciplinary action, not Taylor.
A month later, Lanham asked a new warden, Earl Beshears, to revisit the case.
Beshears recommended that Howe be demoted.
“I consider this to be a gross misconduct and if I have [sic] been warden at the time of this incident I would have recommended that he be demoted from rank of captain,” Beshears wrote in a July 1994 memo to Lanham.
The state agreed, and Howe was demoted again on July 19, 1994. A Somerset County Circuit Court upheld the demotion that September.
But Maryland’s Court of Special Appeals Thursday overrode the lower court. The appellate court ruled that only the warden working when the incident occurred could demote Howe.
“It would be fundamentally unfair to permit a successor warden to second-guess the preceding warden and to discipline an employee for misconduct that the preceding warden had already excused,” the judges wrote. The judges also wrote Lanham was the “underlying force behind the second demotion. While the commissioner is not barred from directing a warden to look into a disciplinary matter, we observe that, by directing warden Beshears to revisit the Howe case, the commissioner blatantly tried to circumvent this court’s  decision.” -30-