The University of Maryland at College Park chapter of the Omega Psi Phi fraternity hired Prince George’s County Police Officer Dominique Richardson to provide security for a Halloween party to be held at an off-campus warehouse. Richardson recruited several other officers to help provide security at the event. Although Richardson drove his personal vehicle to the Halloween party, other officers arrived in police cruisers. Richardson wore his gun belt and service firearm, handcuffs, his police badge on a chain around his neck, a shirt with “PGPD” lettering, a ballistic vest, and other gear issued by the Prince George’s Police Department.
Steven Morales and a friend arrived at the party around 12:40 a.m. There was a large crowd in front of the steps to the entrance doors, which were closed and guarded by security officers. Morales, whose father is a police officer employed by the District of Columbia Metropolitan Police Department, saw security people wearing purple shirts and County police officers wearing badges.
Although Morales had purchased an advance ticket to the party, he waited outside in the cold for approximately 45 minutes, unaware that the party inside was too full to allow others to enter. While he waited, the police cruisers next to the entrance intermittently sounded their sirens as a crowd control measure.
Morales encountered Officer Richardson at the doors to the warehouse. Because Morales was being pushed around as the crowd was surging back and forth, he held up his ticket and twice asked Richardson for help. When Richardson told him to get back in line, an altercation occurred between the two, and Richardson struck Morales. Richardson told Morales to “get the fuck out of here.” Although Morales was bleeding and injured, Richardson did not ask his name or offer first aid.
As a result of the Morales incident, an internal affairs investigation and then a criminal prosecution were initiated against Richardson. Richardson was acquitted on second-degree assault charges stemming from the altercation, and then resigned from the Department.
When Morales sued the County and obtained a successful verdict from a jury, the County defended on the grounds that Richardson was on light-duty status at the time of the incident, and his extra-duty employment by the fraternity was expressly prohibited. For that reason, the County contended, Richardson could not have been acting within the scope of his employment by the County.
A Maryland appeals court rejected the County’s argument. The Court concluded that Richardson’s light-duty status did not make his use of excessive force in dealing with Morales so unexpected and unforeseeable that he was acting outside the scope of his employment as a matter of law: “Richardson testified that he was hired by the fraternity because he was a police officer who was trained and experienced in securing facilities and events. In turn, he hired other PGPD officers to work the event, which was located at a publicly accessible warehouse in Prince George’s County and attended by a large number of undergraduate students.
“Richardson, who was wearing his PGPD badge and positioned at the entrance to the warehouse, next to a marked police cruiser, was identifiable as a police officer in a position of authority during the event. In fact, that is why Morales asked Richardson for help. Throughout the evening, Richardson used his police training, authority, and fellow officers to provide crowd management services. That became necessary as the event exceeded the building capacity, leading to the use of police vehicles and sirens in an effort to control the increasingly agitated crowd.
“Taking the evidence in the light most favorable to Morales, there was sufficient evidence to generate a jury question as to whether Richardson took police action against Morales. Whether Richardson’s punch was deliberate or accidental, it was intended to subdue Morales. The use of force report is also evidence that Richardson believed his conduct constituted police action.
“On this record, there was evidence that Richardson’s conduct was the kind he was employed to perform for the Department, that it occurred during a period not unreasonably disconnected from the authorized period of employment, in a locality where he was authorized to take police action, and that it was actuated at least in part by a purpose to serve the County. That was sufficient for the jury to find by a preponderance of the evidence that, even if Richardson’s crowd control duties were within the scope of his employment by the fraternity, his actions during his altercation with Morales were within the scope of his employment.”
Prince George’s County, Maryland v. Morales, 2016 WL 4723437 (Ct. Spec. App. Md. 2016).