Fruitland police chief cleared on driving charges

 

A Somerset County Sheriff’s Office deputy and two Princess Anne police officers had their guns pointed at Fruitland’s police chief, while yelling commands to drop from his hand what turned out to be a wallet during a traffic stop July 29 in Princess Anne.

Deputy Rondell Redding did not know Chief Michael Phillips, and pulled him over when Redding said his cruiser was nearly hit by Phillips’ pickup truck on U.S. 13. Phillips was charged with DWI and DUI as well as following too closely, but after a couple of hours of trial to sort it out retired Somerset County District Court Judge R. Patrick Hayman found the police chief guilty of only the minor traffic offense.

Phillips — who has been suspended with pay since the incident — was fined $64.50 and ordered to pay $25.50 in court costs. In the judge’s Dec. 8 decision of probation before judgment, if Phillips completes 90 days of unsupervised probation without incident the guilty verdict can be expunged.

“We’re very pleased with the results,” said Phillips’ attorney John Phoebus. The judge “made a tough decision, but the right decision.” Phillips, 48, had no comment. Phoebus said his client “looks forward to getting back to policing” but that decision will rest with Fruitland officials. “We anticipate that will happen,” Phoebus said.

While Judge Hayman did not explain his decision, Phoebus believes it’s because there was not enough evidence. Phillips refused a breathalyzer and a field sobriety test, and while Phoebus tried unsuccessfully to suppress the videotape of the traffic stop taken from the deputy’s vehicle, he used it during his closing argument to say that his client passed a very difficult test, walking backwards in a straight line with his hands atop his head just before being handcuffed.

“By saying ‘not guilty’ as opposed to saying that he’d grant the motion to suppress indicated there was not enough evidence to find that my client had actually been driving under the influence of alcohol or driving while impaired,” Phoebus said. “Of all the different ways you can win, it’s the best you can win because there’s reasonable doubt as to whether any crime was committed. It wasn’t winning on a technicality.”

Deputy Redding testified he was on patrol with his cruise control set at 65 miles per hour on northbound U.S. 13 just south of Princess Anne when he noticed in his mirrors a vehicle “straddling both lanes.” He pulled over the left shoulder line to the edge of the roadway and Phillips’ 2005 Ford pickup missed him by what “appeared to be inches.”

He followed the truck, and watched it “weaving in and out of his lane” and coming close to some parked vehicles, but the dash camera was not on at that time. The deputy also did not report to Somerset Central that he had nearly been hit. He activated his emergency equipment, and Phillips pulled into and out of the carport of a former Texaco station that once was a substation for the PAPD. He parked his truck pointing toward the road.

Phillips exited the vehicle, and fell to his knees the deputy said as he ordered him to get back inside. It is not until this point that the deputy’s camera is turned on, and Phoebus motioned that the footage not be entered as evidence. Judge Hayman, however, watched it and later denied the motion.

Redding called for backup and said since he didn’t know why Phillips came out of his truck he felt it was a high risk situation that necessitated drawing his gun. “I drew my service weapon,” he said, since Phillips was not complying with commands. Officers David Adams and Kara Meeks did similarly upon their arrival.

Phillips exits the vehicle with an object in his hand that both Redding and Adams acknowledged did not look like a weapon, but turned out to be a wallet. They order it to be dropped and Phillips backs up with his hands raised to the deputy’s vehicle. When ordered to his knees, Phillips is handcuffed. Redding is heard saying on the video, “You’re the what now? You say you’re the chief of something?” after Phillips says who is his.

“You almost struck me,” the deputy replies. “My apologies,” Phillip responds.

There’s a remark about having five drinks, but not over what time period, and a female passenger in the car, who was not in court last week, also drew attention from the officers because she was ingesting something, which turned out to be fried chicken. A six pack and an empty Corona were found in the vehicle.

Redding said he smelled alcohol, Phillips’ speech was “slightly slurred…mumbled words” and DUI “is how I perceived it.”

Phoebus got Redding to admit that Phillips was compliant during the stop, and argued that with the aggressive approach by police his client did remarkably well under the pressure of having weapons pointed at him. By the time the arrest was over Deputy Redding was joined by a second deputy, Princess Anne’s police chief was there with his two officers, and two members of the State Police responded.

It was left to special prosecutor Jonathan Naylor to present the state’s case, going over the observations of the deputy, the acknowledgment about five drinks and the actions of the police chief exiting the vehicle upon being stopped — an action someone in law enforcement should know not to do.

“All of this shows impairment,” Naylor said. “The evidence in this case is overwhelming” that Phillips “had an inability” to control his vehicle.

Phoebus said the incident was “the most excessive show of force” in his years as an attorney for a circumstance that de-escalates from the start. “We don’t see [Phillips] fall down,” and it was terrifying to watch his client “moving slowly” with guns trained on him as officers are “screaming commands.” “He could have been shot by these police officers.”

Phoebus asked Judge Hayman to grant the motion to suppress the evidence, conclude there were violations to Phillips’ Fourth Amendment rights, or find reasonable doubt, which he believes is what the judge concluded.

Phillips elected not to testify.

Richard Crumbaker is the Managing Editor of the County Times in Crisfield Maryland.

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