WASHINGTON- A federal appeals court ruled Wednesday that an off-duty Prince George’s County police officer can stand trial for fatally shooting a man outside a West Lanham dance in 1997.
But a three-judge panel of the 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals said Prince George’s County cannot be held liable for intentional tort claims stemming from the death of Gary Hopkins, reversing the lower court on that one point.
The published opinion, written by Judge Walter K. Stapleton, supported all other aspects of the district court ruling, including the county’s liability for constitutional claims, such as excessive force.
“The court’s ruling does not let the county off the hook,” said Walter Blair, the attorney for Hopkins’ mother, Marion Gray-Hopkins. “This decision is a victory for us.”
The high-profile case — celebrity attorney Johnnie Cochran is helping represent Gray-Hopkins — began early on the morning of Nov. 27, 1999, when a fight erupted in the parking lot of a West Lanham firehouse that was hosting a dance.
County police Officer Brian Catlett was working off-duty as a security officer at the dance when the fight broke out about 2:20 a.m. between groups in two separate cars. Catlett and another off-duty officer who was working security at the dance tried to break up the fight and called for police backup.
While waiting for police to arrive, the off-duty cops heard someone in the crowd say there was a gun in one of the cars, a cream-colored Cutlass. That information was radioed to police who were responding to the scene.
When Officer Devin White arrived, he approached the Cutlass with his gun drawn and ordered everyone inside to put their hands up. The driver did so and the front passenger ran away, but the passenger in the back — Hopkins — grabbed at White’s gun, according to court documents.
There was a struggle for the gun, during which time White repeatedly ordered Hopkins to back off, according to police witnesses. During the struggle, Catlett fired, hitting Hopkins who crumpled to the ground.
But several other witnesses said Hopkins was a peacemaker during the incident, urging people to calm down and go home. At no point did he threaten White, they said, and he was standing still with his hands in the air when Catlett fired.
At a criminal trial, the state introduced forensic evidence that DNA from White’s gun matched the DNA of Hopkins, who had a scratch on his hand that police witnesses said came from the gun sight.
Catlett was acquitted at that trial, sparking the civil suit in federal district court by Gray-Hopkins.
The county and Catlett asked for that suit to be thrown out, but District Judge Deborah Chasanow refused.
“This is not a situation where there are only minor discrepancies in testimony or where the witnesses’ vantage point is significantly worse than the officers’,” Chasanow said of the need for a trial.
The officer and the county appealed Chasanow’s decision, but the appellate judges agreed with most of her ruling Wednesday. The case was sent back to the district court to be tried.
Attorneys for the county and for the county police union did not return calls seeking comment Thursday. An attorney from Cochran’s office said he could not comment until he looked at the case.