Under Maryland law, it is a crime for public officials to corruptly commit misconduct in office. The law defines corruption as depravity, perversion or taint in the willful abuse of authority, and not a mere error in judgment. What evidence may be admissible to prove such corrupt misconduct was explored by Maryland’s intermediate appellate Court in a case reported last week called Sewell v. State.
The opinion of the two-judge majority indicates that Sewell was the former Police Chief of Pocomoke City, who was terminated from that position and also filed complaints against the Department for racial discrimination. Following his termination, Sewell was indicted for misconduct in office arising from the handling of a traffic incident. At trial, the State claimed that Sewell and his Lieutenant interfered with an investigation into a hit and run accident, where the driver who belonged to an organization with Sewell stuck two parked cars late at night.
Although the evidence did not show any motive associated with membership in the organization, the State presented evidence from investigating officers that the defendant’s conduct was unusual and out of the ordinary.
The evidence included that he and the Lieutenant came to the scene of the investigation late at night, off duty, and that Sewell answered questions for the suspect about his sobriety and instructed the investigating officer to write up the incident as a mere accident and not a hit and run. Sewell testified that his actions were reasonable and within his discretion as a small town Police Chief, but the jury convicted him of misconduct.
The two-judge majority found there was sufficient evidence to support the conviction, but that the trial judge erred in excluding two expert witnesses the defense wished to call. Those witnesses included a former law enforcement manager and criminal justice trainer, who were proffered to testify to the considerations and objectives that may affect a small town police chief in exercising discretion over a criminal investigation. The majority found that this testimony could have assisted the jury in determining if the police chief’s actions were reasonable and proper under these circumstances, and they reversed the case for new trial.
The dissenting Judge would have found the State’s evidence at trial insufficient in the first place to support conviction. This illustrates the types of evidence that may be admitted in trials of public officials for misconduct in office.
Thomas Patrick Ryan is a partner in the Rockville law firm of McCarthy Wilson, which specializes in civil litigation.