Ida C. Hawkins says she was shoved and called a savage by a Springfield Hospital Center police officer who had pulled her over for a traffic violation.
But Officer Ricky Hinkle says that he was just trying to write a simple traffic ticket the night of June 27, 1990, and that he never pushed her, shoved or called Mrs. Hawkins -- or anyone else -- a savage.
In fact, he says, it was she who provoked him to arrest her.
Now, four years later, it's up to a Carroll County Circuit Court jury to decide whether Mrs. Hawkins should be compensated $5 million for what she claims was overzealous, racist police work or if the two officers named in her three-count lawsuit were merely doing their jobs.
As the trial began yesterday, Mrs. Hawkins' attorney tried to portray the suit as one about racism in Carroll County. Mrs. Hawkins, 54, of Woodlawn, is black; Springfield Officers Hinkle and John Craven are white.
"This is a case of alleged racial prejudice," Mark A. Epstein, the Baltimore lawyer representing Mrs. Hawkins' told the jury of four men and two women yesterday afternoon. "It is unfortunate, but if you find that it happened, it is important to let your community know you are not going to stand for racial prejudice."
Attorneys for the two officers denied that Mrs. Hawkins' race had anything to do with her arrest after two traffic stops that night.
"This is not a case about racism," said Assistant Attorney General Timothy J. Paulus, who represents Officer Hinkle. "If there's any racism in this case, it is all in Mrs. Hinkle's mind."
And Kirk Seaman, Officer Craven's attorney, said Mrs. Hinkle's suit is about one thing: money.
"We're becoming a society of very thin-skinned people," Mr. Seaman said in his opening statement. "It seems that ever since the Rodney King beating trials, everyone is suing police departments. . . .
"You have an opportunity to stop it. Ida Hawkins, plain and simple, ladies and gentlemen, broke the law, and now she comes to you asking you to give her money for breaking the law."
The suit was filed in Baltimore Circuit Court in 1992, but was moved to Carroll Circuit Court later that year. Mrs. Hawkins claimed that the two officers and the town of Sykesville were responsible for false imprisonment, malicious prosecution and intentional infliction of emotional distress. A Carroll judge dropped the town as a defendant last year.
The accounts of that night varied yesterday. Mr. Epstein said Officer Hinkle stopped Mrs. Hawkins as she drove into the
hospital grounds to begin working the 11:15 p.m. shift. Mrs. Hawkins, a nursing assistant, has held the job for 26 years.
Officer Hinkle gave her a repair order to fix some rear and side lights on her 1974 Mercedes. She said she drove away slowly; the officer said she sped away and almost ran over his feet.
Mrs. Hawkins then went to drop off a co-worker and, according to attorneys from both sides, failed to halt at a stop sign where several officers -- including Officer Hinkle -- had congregated. He pursued her; she did not stop until she reached an administration building.
At the building, Mrs. Hawkins says, Officer Hinkle pushed and shoved her twice and followed her inside the building, where she was arrested. Officer Hinkle, his attorney said, tried to write her a ticket for going through the stop sign, but she got out of the car, pushed him aside after throwing down her driver's license and ran into the building.
She was charged with running a stop sign, resisting arrest, failing to obey an officer's order and battery.
It was as Mrs. Hawkins sat handcuffed in a police cruiser that she heard Officer Hinkle say, "I should have the savage's car towed away," Mr. Epstein said.
Mr. Paulus said that Officer Hinkle wasn't near Mrs. Hawkins then and that he never uttered such a sentence.
In June 1991, a Carroll jury acquitted Mrs. Hinkle of all but the traffic charge.
The defendants hope to show that Mrs. Hawkins is a chronic complainer who often raises race as an issue in her dealings with police and her employer. They indicated she has been charged with traffic offenses twice before -- both times acquitted -- and that she was difficult for the police to deal with both times.
They also said they will show that she has been reprimanded several times for being late to work, as she was the night of June 27, 1990.
Mr. Epstein asked the jury to keep an open mind about his client's criminal and employment records. "My client isn't perfect, but she isn't a bad person," he said.
The trial is to continue today.