Court says commissioner can't overrule board Chief may not set penalty after officer is cleared


In a setback for the Baltimore police commissioner, a city judge ruled yesterday that Thomas C. Frazier can't overrule administrative boards who exonerate officers accused of causing patrol car accidents.

Circuit Judge Ellen M. Heller decided in favor of the Fraternal Order of Police Lodge 3, which sued the department in January after an officer was reprimanded for an accident despite a trial board ruling that the fender-bender was not his fault.

Mr. Frazier reversed the decision as part of his efforts to crack down on bad driving habits of city police officers in 1993, when more than half of the nearly 500 patrol car accidents were determined to be preventable.

Department officials would not comment on the ruling yesterday. But in earlier interviews, Mr. Frazier said his legal staff "assures me I have the right to do what I did."

The judge disagreed, and yesterday union officials hailed the victory as an important stand for protecting due-process rights of the city's 3,100 police officers.

"This case was about whether the commissioner could take it upon himself and ignore what the law says, and the law says the decision of a trial board is final," said Michael Marshall, a lawyer for the police union.

"The commissioner does not hear the witnesses," Mr. Marshall said. "He doesn't see the evidence. For him to reverse the decision of a trial board makes a mockery of the whole system."

Gary May, a lawyer for the Baltimore Police Department, said he will meet with Mr. Frazier before deciding on an appeal.

If Mr. Frazier decides not to appeal, a letter of reprimand will be removed from Officer William J. Heilman's file, and he will not have to seek guidance and counseling, the mildest form of punishment given by the department.

The lawsuit involving Officer Heilman, 44, a 22-year veteran, followed a minor patrol car accident on April 9, 1994. Police said he drove his car all day, even though a warning light indicated that the anti-lock brakes were failing. The brakes failed and he hit a car.

An accident review board, made up of three members of the department, found that the accident was not preventable, the equivalent of not guilty. But on Jan. 3, Mr. Frazier reversed the decision, saying the accident was a result of "human failure."

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