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Crime

Jurors decide Anne Arundel police canine handler didn’t use excessive force during 2014 arrest

After a two-day trial in U.S. District Court in Greenbelt, jurors found that an Anne Arundel County police corporal did not use excessive force in 2014 when he let his canine partner bite a suspect following a multi-county car chase.

The Friday verdict came just over eight years after officers arrested then 23-year-old Christopher Michael Thomas, who alleged in a 2017 federal complaint that Anne Arundel police Cpl. Jeffrey Rothenbecker had ordered his canine partner to attack him as other officers kicked him.

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Police and the county’s lawyers, Philip Culpepper and Melissa McKay, disputed the account in court filings and said Thomas, now 31, was kicking officers and resisting arrest, becoming increasingly combative with police as they tried to put him in handcuffs.

Thomas was arrested June 3, 2014, after a chase through Prince George’s, Anne Arundel and Howard counties, which started when an Anne Arundel officer attempted to pull his car over for speeding and weaving through traffic on the Baltimore-Washington Parkway, according to court records.

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Police said Thomas had initially driven to a dead-end road and stopped but turned around and struck an officer’s vehicle before leading several agencies on a chase that ended on Route 32 when Thomas’ car struck “stop sticks,” a device used to puncture tires, that police had left on the road.

Rothenbecker said in court filings he had unleashed his canine partner, Rocky, because Thomas was kicking a Maryland State Police trooper who was placing him in handcuffs alongside a Howard County police officer.

“As the driver was becoming more combative, I began to believe the trooper and officer were going to be injured,” the corporal wrote, adding he believed Thomas was becoming a threat to the public. Police later found a knife in his pocket and another in his car, and believed he was under the influence of narcotics, officers said in court filings.

Rothenbecker is still a county police officer, the agency said Wednesday. Rocky, the dog, has since retired.

In a deposition, Thomas claimed that an officer had placed one of his arms in a handcuff before “a dozen” officers surrounded him and started kicking him, and the dog attacked him. He said he put his hand in the dog’s mouth to stop the dog from biting him. Police said he struck Rocky with a closed fist several times.

Lawyers didn’t dispute that Thomas suffered several injuries from the incident. He was hospitalized before being transferred to the Jennifer Road Detention Center, and was charged with several assault, drug and traffic charges, which were later dismissed.

When Thomas first filed the federal lawsuit in 2017, he included more than 40 officers and public officials as defendants, including Gov. Larry Hogan, the county executives and police chiefs of Anne Arundel, Prince George’s and Howard counties. He sought damages totaling $15 million on several civil rights violations.

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By the time the trial started last week, most of those claims had been dismissed, but not Thomas’ allegation that Rothenbecker had used excessive force.

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Jurors rejected that claim Friday, prompting U.S. District Judge George Jarrod Hazel to close the case.

In a separate lawsuit that concluded the same day in U.S. District Court in Baltimore, jurors determined that Anne Arundel police and prosecutors did not maliciously prosecute Sherita Hicks, who claimed police had lied in charging documents leading to her 2017 arrest on assault charges.

Hicks was jailed for three days after Anne Arundel County Police Cpl. Gregory Pamer identified her as one of three people who attacked a Severn man in January 2017. The officer said in court filings Hicks became a suspect because a witness said the assailants were traveling in a van registered to her, and she had called police earlier that day alleging that the man stole an ATV from her town home.

Pamer filed charges against Hicks after the man identified his female attacker in a photo lineup. The woman he had picked was not Hicks, but Pamer wrote in charging papers that he had picked a photo of her.

The officer said in court filings that he had mistakenly believed the man identified Hicks as the attacker in the photo lineup, and that he did not realize the mistake until the lawsuit was filed in 2020. Prosecutors dropped the assault charges the next month.

Concluding the five-day trial in front of U.S. District Judge Deborah L. Boardman, jurors determined that Pamer didn’t intentionally or recklessly lie when charging Hicks, and that he didn’t maliciously prosecute her. They also rejected a negligence charge against Pamer, court filings say.


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