Washington County has no record of ‘special deputy’ appointment of man who left gun at L.L. Bean

Posted Jan. 03, 2013, at 4:57 p.m.
Last modified Jan. 03, 2013, at 5:57 p.m.

ELLSWORTH, Maine — The “special deputy” appointment of a Winter Harbor doctor by Washington County Sheriff Donnie Smith was never validated according to Maine law. Despite that, Smith gave the man an ID that wrongly identified him as a qualified police officer with the right to carry a concealed weapon.

Sheriff Donnie Smith appointed Benjamin Newman, 72, as a special deputy sometime after the doctor was contracted as the county’s jail doctor in June. The sheriff has the authority to name anyone a special deputy so long as they are 18 or older.

But according to Maine statute, special deputy appointments are not valid until they are recorded at the commissioners’ office in the county where the appointment was made. Betsy Fitzgerald, county manager for Washington County, said Thursday that no record for Newman’s appointment had arrived at her office.

“Those appointments happen at the sheriff’s office; we don’t have anything to do with them here,” she said. “It may be on its way, but I haven’t seen it yet.”

When asked whether other special deputy appointment records were kept in the county office, Fitzgerald said she didn’t know.

“If the sheriff tells me which people have special appointments, I’m sure I would find them in the personnel files,” she said. “But I’m not going to look through dozens of personnel files for you.”

Although special deputies have no law enforcement authority outside times of war or declared emergencies, Newman was issued an ID that stated he was a “qualified law enforcement officer of the Washington County Sheriff’s Office” and as such “is authorized to carry a concealed firearm.”

According to records at the Maine Criminal Justice Academy, Newman never has completed any level of training there, which would be necessary to be a qualified law enforcement officer.

Questions were raised after Newman presented the ID Smith had given him it to Ellsworth police as evidence of his right to carry a concealed firearm. Qualified officers — such as sheriff’s deputies, police and game wardens — are an exception to Maine’s law requiring a permit to carry concealed weapons.

Newman was questioned by police about his right to concealed carry after accidentally leaving his loaded Walther 9 mm police pistol in the L.L.Bean outlet in Ellsworth on Dec. 26. He was charged with reckless conduct.

After initial interviews, Smith and Newman both have refused to answer questions from the Bangor Daily News or clarify how or why Newman was given the wrong credentials.

The confusion and inaccuracy surrounding Newman’s appointment revolves around different levels of sheriff’s office employees.

According to Harry McKenney, chief civil deputy in Kennebec County and civil service instructor for the Maine Sheriff’s Academy, full-time and part-time deputies each complete some level of training at the police academy and are certified by the state as valid law enforcement officers.

Some sheriff’s offices in the state use “civil deputies,” who are not required to be qualified law enforcement officers, to serve legal documents such as eviction notices, divorce papers or subpoenas, McKenney said. No official training is required by law to serve civil process, but some choose to use only qualified deputies in that role, McKenney said.

Maine law allows for the appointment of “special deputies” who can be given the full authority of a qualified deputy during wartime and declared emergencies. Outside those times, though, they have only the authority to serve civil process.

Special deputy appointments are common, according to Penobscot County Sheriff Glenn Ross, who is also president of the Maine Sheriff’s Association. In his county, there are 15 special deputies, he said, most of whom are retired deputies or corrections officers. The title is mostly an honorific.

“They’re people who just want to have an affiliation with the department, but they have no authority at all, no arrest powers, no firearm rights,” he said. “Their ID card says specifically that they do not have the authority of a regular deputy.”

Ross said that while his department has 15 special deputies, none have ever been activated.

There’s no indication that Newman ever attempted law enforcement activity under the auspices of his erroneous ID. And while the card inaccurately stated he was a qualified officer with the right to carry a concealed weapon, Smith has said he didn’t intend to give the doctor the license to concealed carry.

Follow Mario Moretto on Twitter at @riocarmine.

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