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Judge dismisses case against Checkers' owner


The misdemeanor case against millionaire La-Van Hawkins came to an abrupt end yesterday when a judge declared that he'd heard enough of the squabble between the fast-food restaurant owner and a police officer over a traffic problem.

Judge Askew W. Gatewood Jr. dismissed a charge that Mr. Hawkins hindered a police officer and found him guilty only of a $20 violation of obstructing traffic.

"I've tolerated this case longer than I should have," the judge said after the prosecution presented its evidence. "This case should not have been here. I think we have some attitudes involved here."

Mr. Hawkins, 35, the owner of Checkers restaurants in Baltimore and other East Coast cities, agreed that the case never should been in court. He pledged to pursue a complaint against the officer that he has filed with the Police Department.

"If I have to spend a million dollars to see that he's punished to the highest degree, I will do it," he said. "He's going to get what's coming to him."

He said he would not sue the city or the Police Department because of "my respect for Mayor [Kurt L.] Schmoke and my respect for the police commissioner."

Mr. Hawkins' anger was directed toward Officer Allen Swearingen, who arrested him April 22 at Aisquith and Orleans streets while the officer was clearing an accident scene.

Officer Swearingen testified yesterday that Mr. Hawkins was driving along Orleans and tried to make a turn toward an area blocked off by police tape while he was directing him to go straight. He said Mr. Hawkins got out of his car in the left-turn lane of Orleans, confronted him and disobeyed his repeated orders to return to his car and leave.

Two other prosecution witnesses offered conflicting testimony.

Susan Foster, who lives near the accident scene, said yesterday that Officer Swearingen "used a very loud tone" when ordering Mr. Hawkins to leave.

Paul Powers, who operated a tow truck that removed the vehicle damaged in the accident, portrayed the officer as being more patient. But he backed up the defense's contention that the officer made the arrest when Mr. Hawkins asked for his badge number.

Mr. Hawkins did not testify. He charged before and after the trial that the officer cursed and shouted at him because he is a black man who was driving an expensive car -- a custom $225,000 Mercedes-Benz, in this case.

Judge Gatewood made his ruling after a motion for dismissal by Mr. Hawkins' lawyer, Elijah Cummings, before the defense presented its case.

The judge assigned some blame to both sides, saying Mr. Hawkins made a questionable decision to get out of the car and that Officer Swearingen may have used a tone that was offensive to the entrepreneur.

But he said the evidence failed to prove that Mr. Hawkins hindered the officer in a way that would have disturbed public order and well-being.

Mr. Hawkins paid the $20 ticket immediately after the case ended.

"I'm satisfied that he was found guilty of the traffic charge," Officer Swearingen said afterward. "That's what the average citizen would probably get."

He said he was offended by the charges of racism, saying that a discourtesy or excessive force complaint never before had been filed against him during his 16 years as a police officer.

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