State reaches settlement in ex-deputy's suit against Baltimore sheriff

Maryland reaches a $160K settlement with a former deputy who sued the Baltimore sheriff for firing him.

Maryland has reached a $160,000 settlement with a former Baltimore deputy who sued Sheriff John W. Anderson for firing him for speaking out about a raid during which the deputy was shot.

The settlement with former Deputy Sheriff James Lane is scheduled for a vote Wednesday by the Board of Public Works. If approved, the deal would end a case set in motion by Anderson's decision to fire Lane for his comments to media outlets questioning the official version of his shooting six years ago.

In his lawsuit, Lane claimed Anderson violated his First Amendment rights.

A federal appeals court rejected Anderson's immunity claims, pointing to previous decisions in similar cases.

"No reasonable official could have believed that a law enforcement officer's statements to media outlets regarding misconduct and corruption surrounding a police-involved shooting lacked First Amendment protection," the court said.

Legal settlements with state government must be approved by the three-member public works board, made of the governor, comptroller and state treasurer. The board seldom disapproves them.

Sam Cogen, assistant sheriff, referred questions to the state attorney general's office, which declined to comment before the board meets.

Howard B. Hoffman, Lane's Rockville-based attorney, said the settlement also calls for the deputy's reinstatement. If Lane doesn't get his job back, the settlement would unravel and the suit would continue, Hoffman said.

The attorney said he doesn't foresee problems with Lane returning to work. Hoffman said he had met with Anderson and was impressed with his "desire to put this behind us."

Hoffman said he doubts Maryland taxpayers will foot the bill. He said the state is likely to pass the costs of the settlement on to the city, which covers the costs of the sheriff's office though it is independent of City Hall.

Court records show that Lane, a deputy since 2003, took part in an effort in September 2008 to arrest a suspect as a member of the Warrant Apprehension Task Force. During the raid, Lane suffered a gunshot wound to the face. The target of the warrant was shot and killed.

An internal investigation concluded that the suspect had shot Lane, but the deputy suspected he was shot accidentally by another law enforcement officer. According to court papers, Lane expressed doubts to superiors but was told to forget about it.

When he and two colleagues continued to question the investigation findings, they were transferred from the task force.

Lane took his concerns to local media outlets in December 2010, expressing doubts about the official version and his suspicions of a coverup.

Three months later, the sheriff's office brought Lane up on charges based on those interviews. A hearing board found him guilty in December 2011 on five of six counts and recommended a five-day suspension without pay.

Anderson, a Democrat who has been Baltimore's elected sheriff since 1989, rejected the recommendation. He fired Lane, saying he could "no longer trust" the deputy's reliability and credibility.

The sheriff went on to allege that Lane, by questioning another officer's testimony, "had become a polarizing force" in the office.

Lane first sued in Baltimore Circuit Court and won, but his victory was overturned by the Court of Special Appeals. In 2014, he took his case to the federal courts, claiming retaliation for exercising his free-speech rights.

After his case was dismissed by the U.S. District Court for Maryland, Lane appealed to the 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Richmond, Va. In August, the appeals court upheld most of Lane's key arguments and sent the case back to the district court with instructions to reconsider the deputy's claims in light of previous appellate decisions.

Hoffman said the decision could have an important impact on future cases brought against sheriff's offices in Maryland. He said that before the Lane case, federal judges in Maryland routinely found that sheriffs and their deputies were protected from liability for their actions under the sovereign immunity implied by the 11th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution.

Because of the appeals court decision, Hoffman said, judges will have to conduct an in-depth analysis of whether such officers enjoy immunity. Because Maryland does not pay for the operations of sheriffs' offices, he said, lawyers will not be able to argue that immunity protects the state treasury.

Hoffman called the decision "a tremendous victory for all Marylanders who want to see police and sheriffs' offices held accountable."

The appeals court agreed with the lower court's decision to drop Baltimore as a defendant, ruling that it was not liable because Anderson did not set policies for the city.

Hoffman said settlement talks began shortly after the appeals court's decision.

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