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Town government vindicated in police lawsuit

Chris Patterson

(9/15/2004) The Town of Thurmont learned this week that a civil suit filed by six Thurmont police officers against the town more than a year ago has been resolved.

On Aug. 31, Frederick County Circuit Court Judge found in favor of the Town of Thurmont, former police Chief Neil Bechtol, current Chief Terry Frushour and Lt. Troy Angell in a case filed by six of the Thurmont Police Department's officers in July 2003.

An appeal to the decision may still be filed. The officers' attorney said he does intend to file an appeal to the decision.

The officers completely altered the suit's allegations in February 2004 and alleged the town violated the Maryland Constitution, violated Maryland wiretapping laws and engaged in a civil conspiracy to violate the wiretapping laws.

Thurmont police officers Shawn R. Tyler, Jeffrey T. Gerring, Christopher A. McLoughlin, James N. Davis, Michael A. Figgins Jr. and Richard T. White filed the suit. They were represented by Michael J. Belsky, of Schlachman, Belsky and Weiner, P.A., of Baltimore.

The original defendants were Frushour, Bechtol, Angell, the mayor and town commissioners of Thurmont, the Thurmont Police Department and Frederick County.

In February, the officers dropped Frederick County as a defendant.

And in July, the court dismissed the mayor and town commissioners as defendants. At that time, the court also dismissed some of the allegations.

In the decision received by the town on Sept. 13, Judge G. Edward Dwyer ended what had been a heated battle for nearly two years.

The original complaint to the court was that Bechtol, Angell and Frushour installed a video camera in then-Chief Bechtol's office in 2002 in an attempt to record employees within the department without their knowledge or consent. Taping both visual and audio scenes in the office, the effect was to negligently create a hostile work environment and negligently violate the wiretapping act, the former suit claimed.

Additional claims stated the officers were monitored on their squad car radios, also without their knowledge or consent.

The February amendment to the suit removed any mention of negligence and claimed the acts were "willful" violations of the wiretapping act.

The amended suit also alleged the town and others violated parts of the Maryland Constitution that deal with search and seizure and due process.

In a December 2002 investigation by the Maryland State Prosecutor's office about the taping, the prosecutor found there was no malicious or criminal intent, something that is required to show a violation of the wiretapping act.

The amount of damages sought in the case was about $800,000 for each claim.

In Dwyer's decision on the civil suit, he noted that the court could not find a "genuine dispute as to material facts" and issued a summary judgment releasing all remaining defendants ­ Bechtol, Frushour, Angell and the Town of Thurmont.

Dwyer explained that the town did not intrude on the privacy or seclusion of the officers by making the tapes. This is because the taping was done in the chief's office, which is regularly used by up to nine people.

"It cannot be said that the [officers] had a reasonable expectation of privacy...," he wrote.

In the matter of intercepting communications on the car radios, Dwyer wrote that again the officers could not have had any reasonable expectation of privacy. Not only were the cars and the radios the property of the police department, but radio signals are regularly scanned by the public.

Burns said Tuesday that the suit is over for the town, unless the officers decide to appeal, which they have the right to do.

Belsky, the officers' attorney, would only say Wednesday that he disagreed with the judge's conclusions regarding the summary judgment and that the officers would file an appeal.

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