WASHINGTON – The Supreme Court on Monday refused to reopen the case of a man who Prince George’s County police officers left handcuffed to a pole in a parking lot at 3:30 a.m. as a prank.
An appellate court ruled in October that the stunt by Lt. James Rozar and Officer Antonio DeBarros was “immature,” “adolescent” and “foolish,” but that they still had qualified immunity from prosecution because they had not been told specifically that their actions might violate Nelson Robles’ constitutional protections.
The high court’s decision sets a “precedent that essentially gives police officers a blank check as long as they can argue that there’s never been a similar incident,” said Christopher Allen Griffiths, Robles’ attorney. “They’ll be provided immunity for their conduct.”
The incident began on the night of Aug. 17, 1996, when Rozar and DeBarros arrested Robles on an outstanding traffic warrant from Montgomery County. But when the officers asked Montgomery County police to meet them at the county line so that they could turn Robles over, the Montgomery County officers said that they were too busy.
Instead of processing Robles in Prince George’s County for later transfer, Griffiths said the officers took Robles to a deserted shopping center parking lot just over the line in Montgomery County and cuffed him with flexcuffs to a fire-escape support pole.
He said the police laughed as they cuffed Robles and “tried to staple a note to his shirt.” When the note would not stay, the officers left it on the ground.
“They told him go ahead and escape if you can, but we’re not babysitters, we can’t stay here with you anymore,” Griffiths said.
Rozar then phoned a non-emergency number for the Montgomery County police, reported a man tied to a pole and left Robles.
Montgomery County police showed up about 10 minutes later, but were unable to free Robles until a police supervisor showed up with a knife to cut the flexcuffs.
“It was a pretty traumatic experience for him,” Griffiths said. “When I first took him out to the scene where they tied him up, he had a real visceral reaction.”
Robles sued, and a district court jury found that his rights had been violated and awarded him $647,000. But the court said the award was excessive, and let Robles choose between an award of $240,000 or a new trial. Robles took the new trial, but the second jury only awarded him $40,000.
Robles appealed, but the 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals refused to reopen the case. While upholding the lower court’s second decision and award in favor of Robles, it said it could not void the officers’ right of qualified immunity because the officers had not been put on notice that their actions might be unconstitutional.
“The basic point . . . pertains to the simple fairness of giving even unpopular parties proper notice. The Supreme Court requires that we do so, and we are not at liberty to disregard the discipline of its analysis,” the appeals court wrote.
“`I know it when I see it,’ is not a substitute for qualified immunity analysis,” the court said.
It also noted that Robles had won in his first trial and could have kept a $240,000 award, but decided “to roll the dice” with a second trial.
In a sharp dissent, Circuit Judge J. Michael Luttig also cited the Supreme Court, which he said has long held that “the official treatment of pretrial detainees that causes greater than de minimis injury and has no legitimate governmental purpose whatsoever amounts to unconstitutional punishment.” That was clearly the case with Robles, he said.
But the high court, without comment, declined to take up the case Monday. Griffiths said that means the case is now over.
Rozar has since retired from the department, and DeBarros is still on the county police force, said Cpl. Robert Clark, a police spokesman.
Robles now lives in Montgomery County, said Griffiths, where he works in construction.
Prince George’s County officials did not return phone calls seeking comment on the case.