Okwa v. Harper

Decision Date28 July 2000
Docket NumberNo. 129,129
Citation757 A.2d 118,360 Md. 161
PartiesInalegwu OKWA, et ux. v. Michael G. HARPER, et al.
CourtMaryland Court of Appeals

Jonathan P. Kagan (Brassel & Baldwin, P.A., on brief), Annapolis, for appellants.

Kimberly Smith Ward, Asst. Atty. Gen. (J. Joseph Curran, Jr., Atty. Gen. of Maryland and Karen J. Kruger and Deborah A. Donohue, Asst. Attys. Gen., on brief), Baltimore, for appellees.

Argued before BELL, C.J., and ELDRIDGE, RODOWSKY, RAKER, WILNER, CATHELL and HARRELL JJ. HARRELL, Judge.

On 15 June 1996, Inalegwu Okwa (Mr. Okwa) was arrested by Maryland Transportation Authority (MTA) police officers at Baltimore-Washington International airport (BWI) following a verbal dispute between Mr. Okwa and a counter attendant of British Airways, PLC (British Airways) over the validity of an airline ticket previously issued to Mr. Okwa for a British Airways flight. He was charged with assault, disorderly conduct, and resisting arrest. At his trial in the District Court of Maryland, sitting in Anne Arundel County, the Court found Mr. Okwa not guilty of all charges. Seemingly vindicated, Mr. Okwa and his wife, Margaret Westmoreland-Okwa (Appellants), filed a fifteen-count complaint in the Circuit Court for Baltimore City against British Airways, a British Airways employee, the State of Maryland, the MTA, and three MTA police officers. The causes of action stated in the complaint stem from the alleged manner in which the MTA police officers and British Airways personnel treated Mr. Okwa during his dispute with the British Airways counter staff over the plane ticket and subsequent arrest. The case was transferred, on motion of the defendants, to the Circuit Court for Anne Arundel County. Following a hearing, the Court granted the defendants' motion to dismiss or for summary judgment. Appellants filed a notice of appeal with the Court of Special Appeals. Before that court considered the case, we issued a writ of certiorari on our own initiative. Okwa v. Harper, 357 Md. 233, 743 A.2d 245 (2000). Appellants focus their appeal solely on the Circuit Court's judgment as to the motions of the three MTA police officers (Appellees).

I. BACKGROUND

Mr. Okwa arrived at the British Airways ticket counter at BWI on 15 June 1996 at 5:30 p.m. His purpose was to check-in for a flight to Lagos, Nigeria, scheduled to depart at 6:45 p.m. Mr. Okwa had paid $2,353 for his ticket.1 When he walked up to the counter and offered his ticket, Ms. Maria Spriggs and another British Airways employee informed him that his ticket was invalid for travel on that particular flight to Nigeria. Mr. Okwa inquired as to why they would not accept his ticket. Ms. Spriggs did not answer his question; instead she recommended that he take up his ticket dispute with his travel agent. Mr. Okwa renewed his request for an explanation regarding the problem with his ticket. Without further explanation, Ms. Spriggs asked Mr. Okwa to pick up his baggage and leave the check-in area. At least two MTA police officers, Michael G. Harper (Harper) and Kimberly Potter (Potter), were in the same area of the airport terminal where Mr. Okwa's ticket dispute was evolving. They approached the check-in counter and were informed by Ms. Spriggs that Mr. Okwa was "causing trouble."2

At this point, the parties, in their pleadings and papers submitted to the Circuit Court, offer conflicting accounts of what happened next. The affidavits of Officers Harper and Potter stated that the officers approached Mr. Okwa and asked him to calm down, but Mr. Okwa "continued to get more agitated." Officer Potter reportedly told Mr. Okwa "to cease and desist his unlawful activities and explained that he could not stand in a public facility and scream and holler or else I would have to arrest him for disorderly conduct." According to the officers, Mr. Okwa thereupon demanded that they arrest him and he offered his hands to be handcuffed. The officers asserted they complied with his request. They handcuffed Mr. Okwa and guided him toward a terminal exit. The third Appellee, Officer William H. Gernert,3 arrived on the scene at this point and assisted his fellow officers in removing Mr. Okwa. When the group exited the terminal, the officers explained that Mr. Okwa "started jumping up and down trying to break free and yelling at us to shoot him." In an attempt to restrain Mr. Okwa, Officer Potter stated that she grabbed his hands, but Mr. Okwa twisted his arms and trapped Officer Potter's hands in the handcuffs. The whole group then fell to the ground. The officers restrained Mr. Okwa on the ground until additional officers arrived on the scene. When a patrol car arrived on the scene, Mr. Okwa calmed down and ceased to struggle. Officer Harper placed Mr. Okwa into the car and he was taken to the Anne Arundel County Detention Center. Officer Potter was taken to a hospital for treatment of injuries suffered in the scuffle and fall.

In an affidavit4 offered by Mr. Okwa, he presented a different version of the events leading up to his incarceration. According to Mr. Okwa, without inquiring about the nature of his ticket dispute with the British Airways personnel, Officers Harper and Potter prematurely demanded that he leave the airport terminal. Mr. Okwa explained to the officers that he had a valid ticket and wished to board the flight. Without further warnings or discussion, the officers then handcuffed him and began to drag him away from the ticket counter, at which point they were joined by Officer Gernert and a police search dog. When the group exited the terminal, Mr. Okwa asserted that he was forced to the ground, struck in the head by either Officer Harper or Gernert, and had his cuffed hands twisted by his thumbs by Officer Potter. As a result of the incident, Mr. Okwa suffered injuries to his head, neck, knees, and arms. At the time of the ticket dispute and his arrest, Mr. Okwa stated that he was the only person in the immediate area of the terminal where the British Airways counter was located, except for the police officers and British Airways personnel. He acknowledged that he raised his voice during the ticket dispute, but claimed that he never screamed or yelled at the officers or Ms. Spriggs. Mr. Okwa concluded his affidavit stating that he did not resist or provoke the officers and that it was his belief "that the actions by Gernert, Harper, and Potter were motivated by the fact that I was a black male and were taken with the intended purpose to injure me."

Mr. Okwa was charged with disorderly conduct in a public place, resisting arrest, and assault. His District Court trial was held 1 May 1997. The State presented five witnesses, including Ms. Spriggs and Officers Potter and Gernert. After the State presented its case, defense counsel for Mr. Okwa decided not to call any witnesses because he believed that the State had failed to meet its burden. The trial judge agreed. He found that there were too many contradictions in the testimony given by the State's witnesses to warrant a conviction and therefore found Mr. Okwa not guilty of all charges.5 On 5 March 1998, Appellants filed a complaint seeking damages in the Circuit Court for Baltimore City. On 7 April 1998, Officers Harper and Potter, the MTA, and the State of Maryland filed a motion to dismiss for improper venue. On 17 June 1998, the Court denied the motion to dismiss, but ordered the case transferred to the Circuit Court for Anne Arundel County.6See Md. Rule 2-327(b).

Appellants filed an amended complaint in the Circuit Court for Anne Arundel County on 20 January 1999. In the amended complaint, Appellants asserted against all the defendants the common law torts of false imprisonment, malicious prosecution, intentional infliction of emotional distress, as well as violations of 42 U.S.C. § 1985 and 42 U.S.C. § 1981. Each count sought compensatory and punitive damages against Officers Harper, Potter, and Gernert, the MTA, and the State of Maryland.7 Additionally, Appellants included a common law battery count and counts charging violations of 42 U.S.C. § 1983 and Article 24 of the Maryland Declaration of Rights, seeking compensatory and punitive damages, against Officers Harper, Potter, and Gernert, the MTA, and the State of Maryland. Finally, Appellants added a loss of consortium claim against all of the defendants.

On 18 February 1999, Officers Harper and Potter, the MTA, and the State of Maryland filed an amended motion to dismiss, or alternatively motion for summary judgment. The affidavits of Officers Harper and Potter were attached to the motion. On that same day, Officer Gernert filed a motion to dismiss, supporting memorandum of law, and his affidavit. On 18 February 1999, British Airways and Ms. Spriggs filed a motion to dismiss the first amended complaint. Appellants filed, on 25 March 1999, separate memoranda in opposition to all the defense motions and Mr. Okwa's affidavit.

A hearing was held in the Circuit Court for Anne Arundel County, on 14 June 1999, to address all pre-trial motions filed by the parties. At the hearing, the Court treated British Airways's and Ms. Spriggs's motion to dismiss as a motion for summary judgment and granted the motion at the hearing. The Court signed an order granting summary judgment to those defendants on 1 July 1999. In similar fashion, the Court orally granted the motion to dismiss, or alternatively motion for summary judgment, filed by the MTA, and the State. It then signed the order granting their motion on 6 July 1999. The Court at the 14 June hearing reserved its ruling on the motions filed on behalf of Officers Harper, Potter, and Gernert.

Ultimately, the Court granted motions to dismiss or, in the alternative, motions for summary judgment in favor of Officers Harper, Potter, and Gernert.8 In an extensive footnote to each order regarding the officer's motions, the Court made certain findings pertinent to the present appeal. The Court explained...

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