Top court decision means Maryland officers less likely to be prosecuted in use of deadly force situations

PoliceOne Staff Report
(BALTIMORE) - Maryland police officers whose use of deadly force in critical situations may not confirm to department rules are less likely to face criminal charges in the future.

The Court of Appeals, Maryland's highest court, yesterday overturned the involuntary manslaughter and reckless endangerment conviction of a 16-year veteran patrol officer for the February 1996 accidental shooting of a driver after a traffic stop.

Officer Stephen R. Pagotto, whose 20-month prisons sentence had been deferred during his appeals, fatally shot 22-year-old Preston E. Barnes accidentally when his service weapon discharged.

A Baltimore Circuit Court jury had convicted Pagotto of the charges. An appellate court had overturned the conviction and yesterday's highest court ruling ends the matter.

The 6-1 decision by the top court acknowledged that Pagotto may have violated training guidelines by approaching and grabbing Barnes with his gun drawn, prompting the fatal discharge, but Pagotto's action did not amount to a crime.

"In hindsight, perhaps Sergeant Pagotto should have acted differently," Judge Irma S. Raker wrote. "In circumstances that are tense, uncertain and rapidly evolving, this may even amount to ordinary civil negligence.

"It's finally over," Pagotto said during a news conference yesterday, sitting next to his wife, Tommie, and his three children. "Our hearts go out to the Barnes family. It was an accident," the Baltimore Sun reported.

According to J. Joseph Curran Jr., the Maryland Attorney General who had sought to reinstate the conviction, the appeals court decision establishes new criteria for Maryland prosecutors as they decide whether to charge officers in police shootings.

"Now we know that violations of police guidelines are not necessarily evidence of gross negligence," Curran told the Sun.

Pagotto has said that he will seek reinstatement on the force and back pay. While Pagotto will not face criminal prosecution he could be subjected to administrative sanctions. Police Commissioner Edward T. Norris told the Sun that any violations Pagotto might have committed appear to be training issues, and not criminal issues.

The Baltimore Police Department is the only law enforcement agency in the state that requires officers to keep their fingers below the trigger guard unless they are ready to fire, the court noted. It said it would be "illogical to hold him criminally negligent in Baltimore ... and not anywhere else in the state, according to the decision.

Police union officials have strongly criticized the court system for pursuing the Pagotto matter to the state's highest tribunal.

The Barnes family has already settled its civil suit with the city for an undisclosed sum, the newspaper said.

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