The Prince George's County police lieutenant sounded lighthearted as he told police dispatcher Kim Hicks how he intended to get Montgomery County police to pick up the suspect, who was wanted on five Montgomery traffic warrants.
"I've got a set of flex cuffs in the car, and I was just going to take him over to Montgomery County, handcuff him to a pole, pin his ID to the back of his shirt," Lt. James Rozar said about 3 a.m. Aug. 17, 1996.
When dispatcher Kim Hicks laughed, Rozar responded, "I'm serious."
"No. Come on now," Hicks chided him.
Rozar joked that Montgomery County police would have trouble getting the flex cuffs--made of strong plastic--off the detainee, Nelson Omar Robles.
"That's funny," Hicks replied.
But U.S. District Judge Peter J. Messitte was not amused yesterday, as a transcript of the Prince George's police communications tapes was read during a court hearing. The judge hearing a $2 million federal lawsuit arising from the incident said he was "deeply troubled by what Prince George's County police did in this case. It is deeply troubling conduct by a police agency."
The lawsuit filed by Robles, which names the county and two police officers as defendants, alleges that Prince George's police violated his Fourth Amendment right to be protected from unreasonable search and seizure and his 14th Amendment right to due process when Rozar and another officer tied him to a pole and abandoned him.
"Despite the unpleasant behavior" of the officers, Messitte dismissed the lawsuit's federal claims but allowed the rest of the suit, alleging violation of Robles's state constitutional rights, to go forward. Messitte reasoned that the officers were entitled to a qualified immunity defense, which is available to police officers under federal law, but not under state law.
A trial date is expected to be set next week.
Robles, a Salvadoran immigrant, was alone for about 10 minutes before Montgomery County police arrived to free him and take him into custody.
Rozar, a former patrol commander, retired with full benefits in February 1997, after a police trial board found him guilty of violating the department's general orders when he and Officer Antonio DeBarros tied Robles to a utility pole behind the Hillandale Shopping Center in Montgomery County. A police trial board found no wrongdoing by DeBarros, who said he was following Rozar's orders.
Rozar told the trial board that he acted out of frustration after Montgomery County police said they were too busy to pick up Robles. Rozar told police internal affairs investigators that he had DeBarros tie up Robles, then made an anonymous call to Montgomery County police and hid nearby until they arrived.
Deputy County Attorney John Bielec, who is defending the county against the lawsuit, had asked Messitte to dismiss the suit.
"Admittedly, it was unorthodox what these officers did. It probably wasn't prudent," Bielec told Messitte. "But it wasn't unconstitutional."
Bielec argued that Rozar and DeBarros believed that tying Robles to the pole would be the quickest way to get Montgomery County police to respond. Otherwise, the officers would have had to drive Robles about 15 miles to the county detention center in Upper Marlboro, the deputy county attorney said.
"Instead of being outside on a nice summer day, he would have spent hours going back and forth" between jails, Bielec argued.
Bielec told the judge that Robles, now 25, suffered no injuries and sought psychological treatment only 10 months ago, at the behest of his attorney.
But Christopher A. Griffiths, Robles's attorney, argued that his client, a construction worker who speaks Spanish and little English, would have sought psychological treatment sooner if he had enough money and English skills.
Robles was crying when Montgomery County officers arrived and was so unsettled by the incident that he moved from Langley Park to Annandale to live with his sister, Griffiths said.
The incident caused a wave of outrage among Latinos, who said it reflected bias against immigrants.