An appeals court in Richmond yesterday overturned a verdict reached by a federal jury in 1985 that said Alexandria's then-Police Chief Charles T. Strobel had violated the constitutional rights of two employes.
The appeals judges ordered a new trial in the case because of a legal error during the civil trial in which two police officers were awarded $15,000.
Strobel's attorneys, David Fiske and Susan M. Cardenas, said the ruling was a vindication for Strobel, whose legal dispute with Officers Joseph Morrash and Morton Ford came during a period when he was investigated by two grand juries for allegedly mishandling a drug investigation. Strobel was cleared of all charges.
"In every single legal proceeding Charlie had to go through, he has prevailed," said Fiske.
Robert A. Boraks, attorney for Morrash and Ford, could not be reached for comment.
Strobel stepped down from his post last month, three months before his scheduled retirement, after City Manager Vola Lawson demoted one of his deputies and found "significant failure" in police management.
In a 16-page opinion, a three-judge panel of the 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals said it found no basis for allegations by Morrash and Ford that Strobel violated their constitutional rights by transferring them to patrol duties after discovering they were doing an unauthorized investigation of another police officer.
Morrash, a burglary investigator, and Ford, who was in vice and narcotics, had claimed their transfers were punishment for being whistleblowers and that they violated their constitutional rights to free association and due process.
Morrash fought his transfer through the city's appeals process and regained his previous job, the court said. Ford had not availed himself of this grievance process, it said. Thus, neither was constitutionally deprived.
U.S. District Judge Richard L. Williams, who presided at the 1985 trial in federal court in Alexandria, erred when he denied Strobel's request to dismiss the charges before they went to the jury, the panel wrote.
However, the appeals judges said, they were unable to reverse Williams' error because Strobel's attorneys had not asked Williams to throw out the jury's verdict at the close of the trial.
Because of this "crucial omission by defendant Strobel," the judges wrote, "we are therefore constrained to remand the cause to the District Court for a new trial."
The panel upheld Williams' dismissal of similar charges against Strobel by former Alexandria officer Charles Cox, who resigned after being accused of misusing sick leave.
It also affirmed Williams' order dismissing all charges against the City of Alexandria brought by the officers in the same case.