RICHMOND, Va. (CN) – A former corrections official should not have been arrested for impersonating a police officer when she was pulled over on the Virginia side of the Washington beltway, the 4th Circuit ruled.
The federal appeals court’s three-judge panel affirmed that a Fairfax County, Va., police officer does not have qualified immunity and did not have probable cause to arrest Dr. Rose Merchant, a former director of the Prince George’s County Department of Corrections.
Fairfax County Officer Robert Bauer began investigating a claim from a motorist that a black Mercedes-Benz with flashing blue lights on its grill pulled him over. Bauer traced the license plate of the Mercedes, which led him to Dr. Merchant, whose married name is Rose Coretta Clark. Bauer also learned that Clark’s husband was a convicted felon and “had recently served as a police informant, making controlled buys of cocaine in Maryland’s Anne Arundel County.”
Bauer lured the couple to Virginia by falsely claiming the motorist who called in the report claimed contact damage to his vehicle.
According to the ruling, they met in a 7-Eleven parking lot in Annandale, Virginia where Bauer searched Dr. Merchant’s car and found no blue lights or police customization.
“During a lengthy and occasionally testy encounter outside the 7-Eleven, Bauer’s attention was attracted to what he perceived to be a badge that Dr. Merchant held under her jacket packet,” states the ruling. Merchant, however, never presented the badge, though she told him that she “work[ed] in public safety,” for the Prince George’s County Department of Corrections. She also used “air quotes” when referring to her county-issued, unmarked white Impala as her “police car.”
Convinced that Dr. Merchant had been impersonating a police officer, Bauer consulted with a deputy Commonwealth’s Attorney, obtained a warrant and had her arrested and processed.
“Two days later, she was fired by Prince George’s County,” according to the ruling. “After being advised of her new husband’s criminal record, Merchant also had her marriage annulled.”
A jury dismissed the impersonation charge because she had told Bauer repeatedly the nature of her county position, thus prompting her federal case alleging malicious prosecution and violating her Fourth Amendment right to freedom from seizure without probable cause. Though the malicious prosecution claim was dismissed, the judge refused to dismiss claims that Bauer arrested Dr. Merchant without probably cause.
Circuit Judge Bruce King wrote the opinion affirming the district court’s decision, and was joined by Circuit Judge Roger Gregory and Circuit Judge Andre Davis.
Of late, Prince George’s County officials are no strangers to controversy and scandal. Last year, county executive Jack Johnson was sentenced to seven years in federal prison for accepting as much as $1 million in bribes and tampering with evidence. His wife Leslie, a Prince George’s County Council member, was implicated in the scandal and was sentenced to one year in prison.