Law Court hears arguments in Hancock County dispute over cruiser accident

Posted Nov. 20, 2013, at 3:18 p.m.
Last modified Nov. 20, 2013, at 5:06 p.m.

BANGOR, Maine — Three years ago it was a dispute over $100. Now it’s another dispute about a $1,000 deductible.

And in both cases, it has resulted in a lawsuit between Hancock County officials going all the way to the state supreme court.

When Hancock County Sheriff William Clark sues the county commissioners, the dispute hinges not on a dollar amount but on what kind of authority the commissioners have over departments run by the sheriff who, like the three commissioners, is an elected official. On Wednesday, supreme court justices heard oral arguments in the latest dispute at Penobscot Judicial Center.

In 2010, Clark sued and won when the commissioners refused to pay a combined total of less than $100 in overtime to two new union employees.

The current lawsuit pertains to an Oct. 6, 2011, accident in which Deputy Chris Sargent was driving a cruiser at 92 mph when he hit a deer on Route 172 in Ellsworth. Sargent was driving home shortly before 3 a.m. and, as he told a superior officer who responded to the accident, he did not have a reason for why he was driving so fast.

Sargent, who now works as a game warden for the Maine Warden Service, was suspended for a day without pay by Clark and was taken out of the rotation among the department’s patrol staff for receiving a new cruiser.

Clark considered that to be the extent of discipline that Sargent would receive and objected when county commissioners later sought to recoup $1,000 from Sargent to cover the county’s deductible for its automotive insurance policy. Commissioners later dropped their efforts, after the county got more than $1,000 back for trading in the damaged cruiser, but Clark filed suit anyway, claiming the commissioners had overstepped their authority by seeking to discipline the deputy on their own.

The sheriff appealed to the Law Court after Superior Court Justice Kevin Cuddy ruled in the commissioners’ favor. As part of his decision, Cuddy denied requests from Clark and Sargent to have the county cover their legal fees in the dispute.

The arguments the court heard on Wednesday are about how to interpret the commissioners’ actions. Clark claims the commissioners sought to discipline Sargent, in violation of state law and of the county’s collective bargaining agreement with the Teamsters’ union. The commissioners argue that they simply were trying to avoid having taxpayers pay the $1,000 deductible, which they are entitled to do.

John Hamer, the commissioners’ attorney, acknowledged that Clark might have a valid point had the commissioners forced Sargent to hand over $1,000, but the point is moot as they recovered the deductible expense from the salvage sale of the cruiser. Raising the issue and seeking to discuss the matter with the sheriff, he said, is well within the commissioners’ jurisdiction as the final arbiters of the county’s budget and expenses.

“They have the right to investigate and have this discussion with the sheriff,” Hamer told the justices.

Thad Zmistowski, Clark’s attorney, said that the commissioners’ denials that they were seeking to discipline Sargent are “baloney.” He said the commissioners didn’t consider taking the money from the sheriff’s department budget — they wanted to go after Sargent personally. Even after Sargent filed a grievance, which the sheriff supported, the commissioners continued to pressure Clark to get the money from his deputy.

This interference, Zmistowski said, threatens the effectiveness of the county’s law enforcement operations because it creates a situation in which deputies may be concerned with not only what the sheriff tells them to do as their commanding officer, but with conflicting demands that they may get from the commissioners.

“This is about the authority of Sheriff Clark to discipline his deputies,” Zmistowski said.

The matter of disciplinary authority would be different in a situation where a deputy was accused of embezzling county funds, Zmistowski said, in response to questions from Chief Justice Leigh Saufley. In that case, the sheriff would recommend termination of the offender and then the commissioners would be well within their rights to file a civil suit against the fired employee in an attempt to be reimbursed for the stolen money, he said.

A decision in the matter is not expected to be made for several months.

Clark has a history of suing the county commissioners. In 2002, the sheriff filed and lost a lawsuit against the commission over its decision to eliminate the assistant administrator’s position for the county jail.

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