A Howard County police officer charged in an on-duty, wrong-way collision in Anne Arundel County that injured a family of four last June was found not guilty of assault and reckless driving charges by an Anne Arundel County Circuit Court judge Monday. The officer was found guilty of two counts of negligent driving, and will pay $600 in fines.
The officer, Symchay Kon Bendu, 29, of North Laurel, was charged with four counts of second-degree assault, one reckless driving count, and two counts of negligent driving related to a pair of accidents that occurred hours apart on June 8, 2013 on Route 100 in Anne Arundel County.
The bulk of the charges, save for one count of negligent driving, were filed in relation to the second accident, when Bendu's police cruiser was T-boned by a 2005 Honda Civic carrying four passengers, including two children who were transported to the hospital in critical condition.
The collision occurred as Bendu, using an emergency vehicle crossover, attempted to make a U-turn from Route 100 eastbound onto what he thought was Route 100 westbound, but was Route 10 eastbound. Bendu testified he was making the U-turn in an attempt to return to Howard County, and that he had gotten lost enforcing a seatbelt infraction.
Bendu was charged a $500 fine for the negligent driving charge related to the second incident and could receive points on his license. He will not appeal the decision.
For the first incident, Bendu was also found guilty of negligent driving and was granted probation before judgment. He was fined $100.
Presiding Judge Paul F. Harris Jr. said Bendu was at fault in the second accident, and called it "unprofessional" and a "boneheaded decision," which led to the guilty negligent driving verdict.
Harris said, however, he found the incident to be an accident, and that Bendu did not exhibit "wanton and willful disregard for human life," which is the burden required for an assault conviction.
Harris said that the area of the highway where the accident occurred is "poorly designed," and "a hazardous stretch of highway." He added that the signage and sight lines in the area are poor.
Andrew Alperstein, the defense attorney, said the verdict was fair.
"He made a mistake, it's an honest mistake for driving," he said. "It was shocking to me he was charged with a criminal offense."
During the sentencing portion of the hearing, assistant State's Attorney M. Virginia Miles noted the seriousness of the injuries to the children, 11 and 4 at the time, and asked Harris to impose a fine that correlates to "the egregious nature" of his conduct.
Miles pointed out Jamie Norfolk, the children's mother who was driving during the incident and was in the courtroom, said the family "continues to deal with serious injuries," more than a year later. Norfolk, who was previously identified by police as Jamie Butler, wiped away tears as Miles spoke. She declined to speak to the court.
Bendu addressed the family though the court, an apologized for his actions. He said a day hasn't gone by when he doesn't think about the incident, and that it has given him nightmares. He also said he wishes the injured well in their recovery.
Bendu, a five-year veteran of the force, has been on administrative duty. Howard County police spokeswoman Sherry Llewellyn said Bendu will remain there pending the results of an internal investigation, which is ongoing.
In a statement, Howard County police chief Bill McMahon said the department's concern is for the victims, and agreed with Alperstein about the assault charges.
"We continue to be concerned for the ongoing welfare of the family involved in this incident. We were glad that the judge saw no criminality or intent, as we were surprised by the charges, based on the facts," he said. "Our internal affairs investigators will work to conclude their investigation now that the criminal matter has been resolved."