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Harford prosecutor's bid for ninth term opposed by deputies' union, which backs his opponent

Harford County State's Attorney Joseph Cassilly has been Harford's top prosecutor since 1982, but the union representing sheriff's deputies is backing is opponent in the general election.
Harford County State's Attorney Joseph Cassilly has been Harford's top prosecutor since 1982, but the union representing sheriff's deputies is backing is opponent in the general election. (DAVID ANDERSON | AEGIS STAFF / Baltimore Sun Media Group)

Harford County's long-serving chief prosecutor, who is seeking re-election, takes issue with the endorsement of his opponent by the Harford County Deputy Sheriff's Union and speculates the action was driven by his prosecution of one of the union's members.

State's Attorney Joseph Cassilly, a Republican from Bel Air running for his ninth term, is opposed by Democrat Steven Trostle, a Joppa resident who is a senior assistant state's attorney in Cecil County, where he specializes in prosecuting white collar and government crimes.

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Cassilly has been a prosecutor in Harford County since 1977. He was first elected state's attorney in 1982 and has won seven elections since, often with no opposition and frequently outpolling all other national, state and local candidates on the Harford ballot.

"It was pretty obvious to me that this was all about being reprimanded by them for what I did in the Chris Behles case, as far as I can tell," Cassilly said Thursday.

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Christopher Behles, at the time a deputy first class with the Sheriff's Office assigned to the Violent Crimes Task Force, was indicted by a grand jury on charges of first and second-degree assault stemming from an April 2013 incident in which he discharged his service weapon during an altercation with a motorist who had hit Behles' unmarked sheriff's car in the rear, according to court records. Behles was off-duty and in plainclothes.

Behles pleaded guilty this past April to a lesser charge of reckless endangerment and received a suspended jail sentence and $2,000 fine, according to court records. He resigned from the Sheriff's Office on April 7, spokesperson Cristie Kahler confirmed.

In July, the man involved in the altercation with Behles, William R. Harvey V, pleaded guilty to driving while intoxicated in connection with the same incident, according to court records.

Cassilly defended his charging and prosecution of Behles, noting that the former deputy "pleaded guilty."

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Following the deputies union's decision to endorse his opponent, Cassilly sent a letter to The Aegis saying that when he met with union members for an endorsement interview this summer, the only topic of conversation raised was the Behles case.

"No one raised any issues about how my prosecutors handle cases," Cassilly wrote. "No one complained about our 90 percent conviction rate for drunk driving cases, no one said our specialty units that put police and prosecutors together were not among the best in the State."

"You had me sitting there in front of the membership for half an hour, and nobody brought up anything else," he reiterated Thursday.

Cassilly said he is usually unopposed in most of his elections, but also said the deputies' union did not endorse either candidate the last time he was opposed, which was in 1998.

Cassilly also noted, both in interviews and his letter, that he believes the union paid Behles' legal fees in the criminal case.

"All deputies have access to legal representation through the union," Union President Tim Impallaria said Thursday.

Among those the union endorsed this year are incumbent Sheriff Jesse Bane and incumbent western Harford Del. Rick Impallaria, who is Tim Impallaria's brother.

Tim Impallaria said union members voted for the candidates they wanted to endorse. He said they can vote for a particular candidate, or for no endorsement. For instance, they didn't endorse any other candidates for the three delegate seats in Rick Impallaria's legislative district or candidates in the races for two open county council seats.

"It's all done equally and on the same level," the union president said, declining to comment if the Behles case had any bearing on the decision to endorse Cassilly's opponent. "The members decided who they wanted to support."

Trostle, who said he also met with deputies' union, called the endorsement "the most important endorsement I could get," noting that prosecutors and police officers must work "hand in hand."

"I will not speak for the union as to whether they are upset with Mr. Cassilly or not," he said. "You would have to ask them for a comment; however, I'd like to point out that the voting body was given the option to not vote for either of us, and yet a significant majority voted for me."

"I firmly believe that they support me because they want somebody who is at the peak of his legal career and somebody who they know they can have an open line of communication with," he added.

Trostle, 43, a native of Baltimore County, said he has lived in Harford County for about 10 years and worked as a seasonal police officer in Ocean City and as a full-time sheriff's deputy in Durham County, N.C., before he went to law school.

He also worked for the Office of the State Prosecutor and then as a private practice attorney for about two years in Joppatowne, specializing in criminal defense and civil litigation, before he joined the Cecil State's Attorney's Office .

"One of the things that makes me effective as a prosecutor is the fact that I have walked in the shoes of police officers and defense attorneys," he said, explaining he wants to make Harford County "a better, safer county and strengthen the ties between the State's Attorney's Office and the law enforcement agencies."

Cassilly, 63, is a resident of Benson and a Harford County native. He was an Army Ranger in Vietnam, where he suffered a broken neck in combat in 1970. As a result, he uses a wheelchair and his limited use of his hands. Following rehabilitation from his war injuries, he earned his college and law degrees. He has been an longtime advocate for both veterans rights and the rights of the disabled.

"I think I do a very good job at what I do," he said of why he is running again. "I feel like that I have just the sort of right background and right temperament for this job."

Cassilly spoke at length about the technology improvements he has overseen at the State's Attorney's Office during his career, as well as the task forces with law enforcement he has been part of and led, and the development of the county's Family Justice Center to serve victims of domestic violence.

He said he is also running because of a 2013 state appeals court ruling that has resulted in new trials for people across the state who were convicted of murder, including four Harford cases.

One of the Harford cases recently ended when the defendant agreed to plead guilty to murder in a exchange for a somewhat reduced sentence. Cassilly has vowed to prosecute and retry the other three, as well as that of John Huffington whose 1980s conviction for a drug-related double-murder was thrown out because of tainted FBI analyzed hair evidence.

"I have met with the family members, I have met with the police officers that worked on these cases and they're very upset," Cassilly explained. "They want somebody that's going to care about them and handle them and make sure that justice is done in these cases, and I don't feel like I cannot be there for them."

Cassilly, who has been endorsed by the Maryland State Lodge, Fraternal Order of Police, said he meets with local police chiefs monthly, and he and his prosecutors interact with officers and deputies on a daily basis.

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He stressed that officers do not have to wait for an election year to make their concerns known.

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"Stop in and tell me what we can do to make things better," he urged.

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