The Maryland Court of Special Appeals has upheld the firing of a veteran Baltimore Police officer whose record includes a conduct violation for letting his driver’s license expire, an allegation that he went on vacation during medical leave, and a reprimand years ago when he was caught off-post with a woman in his patrol car.
The woman’s husband attacked him with a tire iron. The officer shot the man in his legs.
The final straw for Officer Andre Robinson came when he returned an unidentified green pill to a suspected drug dealer after charges against the man were dropped, according to the court’s ruling. Late last month, the Court of Special Appeals, Maryland’s second-highest court, upheld the police commissioner’s decision to fire Robinson.
This month, the same court upheld a decision to discipline another city officer accused of inappropriately logging into a police database to retrieve information and dish about a cop who had been arrested. In both cases, officers tried to have their punishments overturned by citing the Law Enforcement Officers' Bill of Rights.
The 1970s law was intended to protect officers from arbitrary discipline and false accusations. But Maryland’s so-called LEOBR has come under fire amid the national reckoning over race and policing. Social justice activists, attorneys and lawmakers are calling for the repeal of LEOBR. They argue the bill thwarts attempts to hold cops accountable.
Baltimore Police Commissioner Michael Harrison has lamented that the swift action taken by Minnesota police commanders to fire the officers who arrested and killed George Floyd would not be permitted here. Maryland police unions have lobbied to protect LEOBR, arguing it ensures due process for officers. In a nine to five vote last week, a House of Delegates work group endorsed repealing the law, a step that could bring legislation during the upcoming General Assembly session.
In the two recent cases, the court found the punishments fell within the boundaries of the law.
Robinson believed any discipline would be limited to his action of returning the green pill, said Marc Seldin Rosen, his attorney. So the officer felt blindsided when his old disciplinary record was brought up and used against him, his attorney said. He will appeal to Maryland’s highest court, Rosen said.
“This is a hugely significant decision. If it’s not corrected by the Court of Appeals, police officers are going to basically be faced with situations that they’re unprepared to face,” he said. “It completely goes against the letter and intent of the LEOBR.”
In August 2018, an administrative trial board recommended Robinson be reprimanded and lose 15 days of leave time. But the final decision rests with the police commissioner. Former Commissioner Gary Tuggle met with Robinson and asked the officer to explain his past.
Robinson was found justified in shooting the husband with the tire iron, but reprimanded for being off-post with an unauthorized person in his car, according to court records. The officer also explained that his driver’s license had lapsed while on vacation.
Tuggle wrote that the record “past, present and pending, demonstrates a lack of accountability and responsibility and causes me to question [Officer Robinson’s] ability to perform [his] duties as a police officer,” according to court records.
The commissioner chose to increase the penalty and fire him.
Robinson appealed, arguing that decision violated two provisions of LEOBR. First, that the commissioner only had 30 days to increase the penalty and his decision came five days too late. Second, that Tuggle was required to provide prior notice in writing if he wished to bring up old disciplinary records.
The Baltimore Circuit Court sided with Robinson and ordered the officer get his job back. The Court of Special Appeals reversed the order and upheld his firing.
Appeals judges found Tuggle’s decision actually fell within the 30 days and Robinson was aware of his disciplinary record so he could hardly be blindsided.
His attorney, Rosen, said it’s unfair to ask an officer to defend any event from a 25-year career without prior notice.
“We’re going to vigorously fight this because the whole purpose of the LEOBR is to afford police officers their maximum due process protections,” he said.
In the second case, Sgt. Tanesha Todd was disciplined for logging into the police database to dig up information on another officer who had been arrested, according to court records. The records do not name the other female officer or describe the woman’s alleged crimes.
“Todd had showed the information to other officers, disclosed details of a confidential internal affairs investigation, and made inappropriate comments about the sexual orientation of the officer under investigation,” city attorneys wrote.
The records do not describe the disciplinary action taken against Todd. A police department spokesman said she remains an active member of the force. Her attorney, Martin Cadogan, declined to comment.
Todd also challenged her discipline in the Circuit Court, arguing the punishment was not handed down within the statute of limitations set by LEOBR. Both the Circuit Court and the Court of Appeals noted the discipline was signed off within one year by a police captain — “the commissioner’s designee,” the court found — and therefore met the requirements of the law.
Such procedural challenges demonstrate LEOBR provides officers myriad ways to try to evade discipline, said David Rocah, an attorney with the ACLU of Maryland. The nonprofit has lobbied lawmakers to repeal the law.
“What I think these decisions show is actually why the LEOBR is a problem,” Rocah said. “Both involve claims of procedural violations of the LEOBR that are based on formalistic arguments completely unrelated to the question of whether or not the officer committed the misconduct.”