WASHINGTON – A federal appeals court ordered a new hearing for an off-duty FBI agent who said Prince George’s County Police gave him a split lip, bruises and a strained back and neck during a 1999 traffic stop.
A three-judge panel of the 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals said Jerry Young could not pursue an unlawful arrest claim, but that a federal district judge was wrong to throw out Young’s excessive force and battery claims without a trial.
The published opinion came, coincidentally, on the same day that the county and the Justice Department announced two agreements aimed at curbing the police department’s use of excessive force.
Young’s attorney welcomed the ruling, calling it an important case.
“It was an excellent opinion,” said Donald M. Temple, the attorney.
The case began on the night of July 19, 1999, when Young was towing a neighbor’s car with his Ford Bronco. Court documents said county police Officer R. A. Hines pulled Young and his neighbor over at Columbia Park Road and East Marlboro Avenue in Landover because the taillights on the trailer were not working.
Young, who is black, got out of the car and approached Hines, who is white, to ask why he was stopped. Hines instead told Young and his neighbor to sit down on the curb and put their hands behind their heads.
Both men complied. At that point, Young told Hines that he was an off-duty law enforcement officer, that he was armed, and that his badge was in his car.
When he learned Young was armed, Hines cuffed the agent’s hands behind his back. Then, however, Young said Hines grabbed him in a headlock, spun him around and threw him headfirst to the ground, shoving his knee into the center of Young’s back.
When Hines found a .38-caliber pistol — which is not a standard-issue police gun — he hit Young in the back of the head with his forearm, court documents said. When Young complained about the use of force, Hines told him to shut up and pushed his knee farther into Young’s back.
Hines found Young’s badge, but was unable to verify its authenticity until other officers arrived and placed a call to the FBI, at which time Hines released Young.
The court said the entire incident took about 25 minutes.
Young sued the county and the police department, but the case was thrown out in 2002, prompting the appeal.
The appeals court agreed with the lower court that Young could not sue for unlawful arrest. Because the incident took so little time, and because Hines’ actions were reasonable for a police officer confronted with an armed suspect, the incident was nothing more than an extended stop, not an arrest, the court said.
But the appellate panel said the lower court was wrong to throw out the excessive force charge.
“We cannot . . . conclude as a matter of law that the force used by Officer Hines subsequent to Young’s being handcuffed was reasonable,” Judge Roger L. Gregory wrote in the opinion.
Besides ordering the case back to the lower court for a new hearing, the appeals court also said the district court should use a lower standard than the one it used the first time around, which was whether the officer inflicted “unnecessary and wanton pain and suffering.” Instead, the court should have looked at all the circumstances and weighed those against Hines’ actions to determine if his actions were reasonable.
Temple said he was glad a jury would have a chance to hear the case, and that he would live with its decision.
“If they’re right, they’re right,” Temple said.