ROCKVILLE – The state dismissed all charges against a Damascus family charged with assaulting police officers and hosting an underage drinking party after a circuit court judge tossed out most of the evidence from police, saying they violated the family’s fourth amendment rights.
Members of the Holiday Season Task Force arrested four members of the Magas family in January after a pizza delivery man sent them a tip that there were “young-looking people with beer.” The confrontation escalated to police tasing George and his son Eric Magas, who went to the hospital for their injuries.
Last week, Judge Steven Salant ruled most of the state’s evidence – including multiple confiscated cell phones, packs of beer, an unregistered keg and observations of underage drinking – were gathered illegally.
“We’re very pleased with Judge Salant’s ruling in finding that the actions of the police on Jan. 4 and Jan. 5 were unlawful,” said defense attorney Rene Sandler, who represented the family along with Terrell Roberts and Chris Griffiths. “It’s the hope of the Magas family that the police and the State’s Attorney’s office use this case to change their policies and procedures and to educate the police about the rights of individuals in their homes and elsewhere so that no other family will experience what the Magas family did in this case.”
The State’s Attorney’s office decided not to go forward with the case because Salant’s ruling on the motion to suppress left them with little evidence, according to spokesperson Ramon Korionoff.
“Based on the ruling by Judge Salant last week, we would have virtually no evidence to present in the case. Enforcing the law and keeping the streets safe from underage drinkers is an important public safety goal. Balancing that goal with respecting and upholding the citizen’s constitutional rights can sometimes be difficult for those men and women on the front lines of this effort,” he said.
Moving forward, the family also signed a release saying that they would not sue the police in a civil suit in the future.
According to a police press release from Jan. 6, the officers and deputies from the Montgomery County Police Holiday Season Task Force “were assaulted early Sunday morning,” after arriving at the home on the 9400 block of Damascus Road.
In charging documents police claim homeowner George Magas was visibly drunk and belligerent and had to be tased once to effect a “change of behavior”. Police tased his son Eric twice and arrested four members of the Magas family. Police charged George Magas with resisting arrest, second-degree assault, obstructing police and attempting to disarm a police officer.
Video provided by the defense to The Sentinel shows police dragging George Magas outside his home, two officers sitting on his chest while he was handcuffed and one police officer tasing Magas several times while he was on his back and offering little or no resistance to police.
Police charged his wife, Cathy Magas, with one count of assault and one count of obstructing police. Police charged their son Nicholas with one count of obstructing police and charged Eric with one count of assaulting law enforcement, one of obstructing police, one of second-degree assault, two of resisting arrest and three of possessing a fictitious license. Police also charged each of them with 21 counts of knowingly allowing underage possession of alcohol, although defense attorney Rene Sandler said in June some attendees tested negative for alcohol consumption.
In his ruling, Salant called the officers’ justification for approaching the rear door of the house “doubtful” and some of the police testimony “not true.” Salant brought up a number of inconsistencies in police testimony, including two different versions of how well-lit the front of the house was, both of which a defense witness and 26-year veteran of the force disputed; why police approached the rear stairwell when they did; whether or not the officers had night vision goggles, and who carried a keg up the rear stairwell as evidence.
One officer admitted to not knowing procedures for party dispersal that are written by the captain of their unit and used by the Department of Justice as nationwide procedures, while another officer said those procedures could be used as mere “guidelines” rather than steadfast rules.
Salant also ruled out evidence collected via the warrant police got later the following morning, which they used to confiscate a number of items, including cell phones. Salant said the warrant was “extensive” given that police mentioned only evidence of underage drinking and marijuana to justify the warrant and did not mention the alleged assaults.
Salant went through each stage of the officers’ approach to the rear stairwell where the party appeared to be, and concluded that they encroached too much on the curtilage, or area immediately surrounding the house, without cause.
The prosecution had argued that the case Alvarez v. Montgomery County applied, in which officers approached the rear door to break up an underage drinking party. But Salant differentiated that case because there had been a sign on the front door announcing the party entrance was around the back.
“In that case, the owners had created a path to where they could be reached, to be where they could be contacted if need be, to where people could walk to get into the house. Here no such path was created,” Salant said. “Whether or not the officers knew that the police officer in front had denied access really doesn’t matter because they were already on the property, they were already making their observations, they had already entered into the property without a warrant and essentially violated that expectation of privacy.”