PRINCE GEORGE'S COUNTY
Police Used Excessive Force, Civil Jury Says
Saturday, January 17, 2009
A Prince George's County civil jury determined yesterday that police officers who stopped a television news reporter and ordered her out of her vehicle at gunpoint nearly four years ago used excessive force and awarded her $5,000 in damages.
But the jury of six men and two women also found that the county officers acted appropriately in conducting a "high-risk" stop of Andrea McCarren, a reporter for WJLA-TV (Channel 7).
In her lawsuit, McCarren alleged that police manhandled her in an attempt to intimidate her into dropping a probe into the possible misuse of county government resources. McCarren and her attorneys said she suffered tendon damage to a shoulder when an officer grabbed her right wrist and yanked it behind her back.
McCarren declined to comment on the verdict. One of her attorneys, Steven M. Pavsner, said, "We're pleased the jury recognized the police used excessive force, which is unacceptable." Pavsner said he was disappointed by the modest amount of damages the jurors awarded.
John Erzen, a county spokesman, said of the verdict: "Sadly, Miss McCarren was trying to make headlines and grandstanding on the issue we violated the freedom of the press. On this issue, the jury has solidly said, no, we did not."
The incident occurred the morning of April 15, 2005, when McCarren and her cameraman, Pete Hakel, were following Cpl. Danon Ashton, the police liaison to the county's chief administrative officer, Jacqueline Brown.
According to the lawsuit, McCarren was investigating whether Ashton was serving as Brown's "personal chauffeur" by driving her to dinner parties and on shopping trips and washing her vehicle.
McCarren was driving her personal vehicle, a Toyota Highlander SUV, when she and Hakel, who was in the back seat, began to follow Ashton in a residential area of Bowie.
Ashton picked up Brown from her home, noticed he was being followed and called for help.
In the Cheverly area, county and Cheverly police in marked cars conducted a "felony traffic stop" in which McCarren was ordered out of her vehicle by officers who trained their service weapons on her.
Hakel captured part of the encounter with his camera. The video shows McCarren following police orders to get out of her vehicle and put her hands in the air. At the direction of police, McCarren slowly walks backward and is out of camera range after a few steps.
In all, nine police cars from Prince George's and Cheverly responded. Although most of the squad cars were equipped with video cameras, police said none of them were working that day, Pavsner said.