By andrei Blakely
ANNAPOLIS – The Maryland Court of Special Appeals expanded the definition of malice to police officers Tuesday, upholding its previous decision for a jury trial in the wrongful arrest case of a Hyattsville man.
Robert L. Thacker, an apartment manager in Hyattsville, was arrested in 1997 when he called the police to remove a disgruntled tenant from his office over a parking permit dispute. But instead of removing the tenant, the arriving police officer, Cpl. Gary Blakes, grew upset at Thacker and arrested him for disorderly conduct, with two other officers on the scene.
Tuesday’s court opinion said malice could be committed without the “admission of ‘evil motivation.'” Malice can actually be inferred from evidence of a history of personal conflict or animosity, the opinion said. In the Thacker case, Hyattsville City Police often were called to settle disputes at the apartment complex and Blakes had wanted Thacker to hire an off-duty police officer as security.
The appeals court first found malice in the case in a September ruling. Tuesday’s judgment stemmed from a motion for reconsideration by the defense of that earlier decision, which reversed five out of nine counts in the 1999 Prince George’s County Circuit Court’s judgment and granted the plaintiff a jury trial in the lower court.
“I feel that we’re vindicated in a certain sense. My feeling is that if someone makes a false arrest – and if they don’t have the authority – that type of suppression impacts our civil rights,” said Elliot P. DeMatteis, Thacker’s attorney.
Tuesday’s opinion could have an impact on future cases involving questionable arrests because it finds malicious action in an arresting officer during a time when the county has had several police brutality cases, DeMatteis said.
The case draws a distinction between the state and federal definitions of malice. The federal law states that an officer is immune to guilt for false arrest if he shows good faith in his actions. While, the state constitution provides that hate, spite, ill will or improper motive would have to be proven before guilt is decided.
“These decisions have been expounded and expanded upon by various cases. You can make a statute, but the statute needs to be interpreted,” said DeMatteis.
The testimony during the trial found evidence that Blakes, who is black, possessed possible animosity toward Thacker, who is white. The two had interacted on different occasions before the incident.
“The apartment manager did not treat his black and Hispanic people well. Police are often called. In this case Mr. Thacker stepped out of line,” said Dan Karp, attorney for the City of Hyattsville.
When Blakes arrived on the scene he attempted to enter discussion with the tenant, while Thacker continued to interfere, according to the court opinion.
Thacker was arrested after the 51-minute incident during which he called Blakes a bad police officer in response to Blakes calling him a bad apartment manager.
Hyattsville, which was found liable by the appeals court, probably will not appeal to the state’s high court, said Karp.
“These cases are fact-specific. Would we like to have avoided a trial? Sure. The jury will decide,” he said.