WASHINGTON – A federal judge has rejected a publisher’s claim that St. Mary’s County sheriff’s deputies violated his civil rights by buying up almost every copy of a newspaper before anyone could read a negative story about the state’s attorney.
U.S. District Judge William M. Nickerson dismissed three of the six counts brought by St. Mary’s Today publisher Kenneth Rossignol, and said in a Feb. 21 ruling that the remaining counts should be heard in state court, if Rossignol chose to pursue them.
Rossignol referred calls to his attorney, Ashley Kissinger, who said he was considering an appeal but had made no decision by Friday.
Aides said Sheriff Richard Voorhaar was out of the office Friday and that no one else in the office could comment on the case. Calls to State’s Attorney Richard Fritz’s office were not returned.
The case began with the Nov. 3, 1998, edition of Rossignol’s weekly paper, which hit newsstands on Election Day. The paper’s lead story, under the headline “Fritz Guilty of Rape,” reported that Fritz had pleaded guilty to carnal knowledge of a minor in 1965 while still a teen himself — a conviction that the state’s attorney does not deny.
At the time, both Voorhaar and Fritz were up for election.
On the eve of the election, as the newspapers were being distributed around the county, six deputies and two civilians bought up as many copies of St. Mary’s Today as they could, as soon as the paper hit the stands, according to court documents.
The group had agreed that the deputies would not wear their uniforms or anything that might identify them as members of the sheriff’s department. They drove their own cars, paid for all the copies of the paper they took, and even videotaped purchases from newsboxes to prove that they paid for each copy, according to the ruling.
Rossignol asserted violations of his First, Fourth and 14th Amendment rights under the federal Civil Rights Act. He also charged the deputies with interference with business relations, civil conspiracy and violations of rights that are guaranteed under the Maryland Declaration of Rights.
Kissinger said Nickerson found that the deputies did not “act under the color of law,” because they did not wear their uniforms, drive official vehicle or otherwise identify themselves as police officers when they snapped up the papers.
An individual acts under color of law when exercising or misusing power “possessed by virtue of state law and made possible only because the wrongdoer is clothed with the authority of state,” Nickerson wrote.
But the ruling does not sit well with Kissinger, who said the officers misused their powers.
“You just can’t punch the time-clock and do at 10:05 what you couldn’t do at 10 p.m.,” Kissinger said.