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Paramount has run up a moral debt

California Gov. Pete Wilson signed legislation last month giving security guards at Disneyland and other amusement parks more power to detain visitors suspected of wrongdoing. The new law, which also protects an amusement park from "wrongful detention" lawsuits, goes on the books at a time when Disney faces heightened criticism from patrons who complain of overzealous treatment at the hands of park security officers.

I mention this as background to the second installment of the story of Octavia Eaton. She's the Baltimore woman who was arrested on -- and later exonerated of -- charges that she wrote bad checks at Paramount's Kings Dominion in 1994. It turns out that Paramount also needn't worry if, from time to time, its security practices result in the arrest of an innocent patron. The law in Virginia seems to protect it from big-time payback.

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Indeed, as Eaton learned this month from the federal judge presiding over her malicious-prosecution suit in Virginia, merchants are generally exempt from civil liability when they detain, question or accuse customers who are suspected of committing crimes on their properties.

The judge, sitting in Richmond, Va., dismissed Eaton's claim of damages, saying employees of Kings Dominion had a duty to go after bad-check artists. In addition, a local judge had determined that Kings Dominion had probable cause to accuse Eaton of being the person who had written checks in the park, using the name "Catherine May," on May 15, 1994. Therefore, the federal judge in Richmond ruled, security officials had the right to do what they did -- hold Eaton for several hours, then have her arrested and sent to jail.

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It didn't matter that this "Catherine May" showed up at Kings Dominion the very next day and tried to write another bad check.

Didn't matter that this "Catherine May" had been described as a "full figured, African-American woman" of 195 pounds, while Octavia Eaton, who is black, weighs 420 pounds.

Nor did it matter that another Virginia judge, when told of all this (and the weakness of state's eyewitness-based case), dismissed the criminal charges against Eaton.

It didn't even matter that her arrest and the yearlong legal wrangling that followed left Octavia Eaton, a 46-year-old widow, bankrupt and with little income from her greatly diminished day care business in Forest Park.

So, as of today, Octavia Eaton hasn't been compensated for the "inconveniences" that resulted from her arrest, although her attorneys, Renee Fleisher in Baltimore and Robert Walker in Virginia, are appealing the Richmond judge's ruling.

Kings Dominion, as you might expect, is pleased with the ruling. The park security force had good reason to arrest Eaton, says Dan Hough, vice president for marketing. On May 15, 1994, a number of women passed bad checks at various concessions in the park using multiple identities, he said. Six days later, when she visited the park, Eaton was identified by park employees as a suspect.

But what about the reappearance of this "Catherine May" in Kings Dominion the day after Eaton's arrest? Wouldn't that have supported her claims of innocence?

"Within 24 hours of her arrest, we provided that information [about 'Catherine May'] to the commonwealth's attorney," Hough says. "And he felt we still had reasonable cause to pursue the case."

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You might recall from Wednesday column that Eaton's suit alleged that park security withheld the information about "Catherine May" and other women arrested for passing bad checks in May 1994. Not until mid-April 1995, when Eaton was scheduled for trial in Hanover County, Va., did her attorneys learn of this other evidence.

That delay caused her great hardship, the suit claimed.

While the dismissal of Octavia Eaton's suit against Paramount is being appealed, a similar one filed this year by Stephanie Austin, a former college student from Prince George's County, is still in ,, the pretrial stage. She is represented by the Baltimore firm Shapiro and Olander.

BTC According to the suit, Austin, then a 23-year-old student at the University of Maryland, went to Kings Dominion with other students and faculty members on May 21, 1994. On that day, she was identified by a park employee as the young woman who, a week earlier, had written a bad check for $360 using the name "Donita Morgan."

A week earlier, however, Austin had been in Catonsville, attending a student awards banquet. Like Octavia Eaton, Stephanie Austin's alibi was either ignored or rejected. She was held for questioning at Kings Dominion for several hours, then charged and sent to jail.

The next day, according to Austin's suit, Kings Dominion employees identified another woman answering the description of this "Donita Morgan." That bit of information, which would have supported Austin's pleas of innocence, was withheld from local law enforcement officials, the suit claims.

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"Ms. Austin's personal nightmare continued, with trial set for April 15, 1995," the suit adds. "However, on the eve of trial, her attorney, Virginia State Sen. Henry Marsh, visited the assistant prosecutor handling the case, Seward M. McGhee, and for the first time learned of the exculpatory evidence. He also learned that McGhee now realized he had no case against Austin and was anxious to call off the trial."

The charges were thrown out April 12, 1995.

Austin's suit against Kings Dominion is highly critical of park security personnel and the aggressive pursuit of suspected wrongdoers within the park. It charges Paramount with false arrest and imprisonment, malicious prosecution and negligence. It seeks $25 million in compensatory, and $500,000 in punitive, damages. Octavia Eaton sought millions in damages.

Could all this have been avoided? Security officials at Kings Dominion, confident that they had nabbed two bad-check artists, could have re-evaluated their "evidence" against Octavia Eaton and Stephanie Austin once they knew of the reappearance of "Catherine May" and "Donita Morgan." Maybe, given the circumstances, they should have pressed the prosecutor in Hanover County to take a harder and earlier look at the cases. Maybe they could have assessed the alibis the two women offered. How long could it have taken to check their stories out?

Maybe, way back when, somebody from Paramount should have said that the company regretted what happened to two of its customers. Maybe it should have offered to make things right. I asked Dan Hough about that. Doesn't look like Paramount was (( allowed room for an apology, even if it wanted to make one.

"We're in a situation," he says, "where we brought charges [against Eaton], and she then sued us. Given that this has been a legal proceeding, she has chosen to take steps in a legal way, then I need to continue" to treat it as a legal matter.

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Fine and understandable. But there's a moral matter, too. The matter of a multibillion-dollar conglomerate harming the innocent its zealous pursuit of the guilty.

Pub Date: 10/25/96


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