- The Enterprise
- The Recorder
A Prince Frederick couple has filed a civil suit in U.S. District Court against the Maryland State Police Prince Frederick Barrack and four troopers, the Calvert County Sheriff’s Office and four deputies, the Calvert County government and the State of Maryland for allegedly violating the couple’s constitutional rights, harassing them and racially discriminating against them last July.
Harold and Chante Hodge are seeking $1.375 million from each defendant for punitive damages and compensatory damages, according to the civil complaint filed July 3.
In the complaint, Harold Hodge writes that he was sitting inside his Sark Court home at about 12:50 a.m. July 12, 2011, when he heard “sounds of walking and what sounded like police” radios outside, followed by a knock on his front door.
He said a man identified himself as MSP Cpl. Costella and said he was responding to a call for a domestic disturbance at another Sark Court address. Harold Hodge told Costella the address was not his and Costella then allegedly asked if he heard any yelling or screaming. Harold Hodge said he did not and closed the door.
About three minutes later, Harold Hodge said he heard “loud bangs or poundings” on his front door and became fearful, according to the complaint. He opened his front door and “an unknown male,” later identified as Tfc. Merkelson, asked him if he could come outside. Harold Hodge said no and Merkelson asked to come inside. Harold Hodge said he could not come inside without a warrant and, the lawsuit alleges, Merkelson said he did not need a warrant because he was investigating a domestic dispute and put his foot between the door and the doorframe, “across the threshold” of the Hodges’ home. Sheriff’s deputies Bowen and Fox were standing behind Merkelson, the complaint states.
After telling Merkelson he had violated “his 4th Constitutional Amendment right,” Harold Hodge said, Merkelson allegedly refused to remove his foot from between the door and doorframe, the complaint states. Merkelson asked Harold Hodge who else was in the house and Harold Hodge, “out of fear,” told Merkelson his wife and two daughters were upstairs sleeping. He said Merkelson asked to speak to his wife and Harold Hodge told him he would need a warrant.
According to the complaint, Merkelson “became louder and belligerent” and yelled for Harold Hodge to get his wife. Harold Hodge said he “surrender[ed] out of great fear and great shock and humiliation” and walked toward the staircase and called his wife out of bed. When he looked back, Harold Hodge said Merkelson was pushing his front door open and looking around inside the home.
When Chante Hodge came downstairs, Merkelson asked her if she was OK and she said she was, according to the complaint. Merkelson then asked to speak to their 13- and 15-year-old daughters. Harold Hodge said he told Merkelson he could not talk to his daughters because they were minors, but Merkelson, Fox and Bowen allegedly demanded the Hodges wake their daughters.
“Out of fear and great humiliation,” Harold and Chante Hodge called their daughters downstairs, and their daughters told the police they were fine. When the officers left, Harold Hodge said he wrote down Merkelson’s badge number and told him he would be hearing from his lawyer.
Harold Hodge said Wednesday he filed the civil suit to bring awareness to the fact that police brutality against black and Hispanic people is still happening.
“The reason why I went forward with the lawsuit is because police in Calvert County and all through the nation have been violating the African-American and Hispanic people’s rights” by entering their homes and arresting them without probable cause, he said.
He said there is “no excuse” for violating people’s rights.
“They need to stop targeting the African-American people,” he said. “In 2012, we still have this problem in America. … We’re going to be calling on [President Barack Obama] to address this issue … that police are terrorizing African-American people and Hispanic people.”
In the civil complaint, Harold and Chante Hodge claim the troopers and deputies violated their Fourth Amendment rights to be protected against unreasonable searches and seizures “by using force” to cross the threshold and enter their home, and by performing a search and seizure of their home. They also claim deputies Fox and Bowen “maliciously and willfully” failed to intervene when Merkelson was allegedly violating their Fourth Amendment rights.
The officers also allegedly violated the Hodges’ 14th Amendment rights, the complaint states, by not equally protecting them and by denying them life, liberty or property. The Hodges also alleged the officers violated their Fifth Amendment rights for the same reasons.
The Hodges allege the officers falsely arrested and imprisoned them because they felt like they were not free to leave their home or shut their front door “without being beaten, shot, killed or maliciously prosecuted” by the officers.
The Hodges claim the officers invaded their privacy by entering their home and that Merkelson caused them pain, suffering, mental anguish and humiliation when he crossed the threshold of their home.
The Hodges said in the complaint that all of the officers “conspired together to intimidate and threaten and oppress” and that they intentionally inflicted emotional distress on the Hodges by making them fearful that an assault would occur.
The complaint states that Merkelson and the other officers treated the family differently “from ... ‘white’ people in Calvert County.” It states the officers had the correct names of the people involved in the domestic dispute and knew that the Hodges were not who they were looking for. It claims the officers “have never illegally cross[ed] ‘white’ people[‘s] threshold[s].”
On Sept. 19, 2011, Harold and Chante Hodge went to the MSP Prince Frederick Barrack to obtain a copy of the report about what happened the night of July 12, 2011, and were allegedly refused a copy by barrack commander Lt. Randy Stephens. They claim this violates their rights under the Freedom of Information Act.
“All internal investigations are covered under the law enforcement officer’s bill of rights, and therefore I cannot make any comments until a full investigation is completed,” Stephens said Tuesday afternoon.
Sheriff Mike Evans said an internal investigation was conducted within the sheriff’s office and was successfully closed.
Harold Hodge said he knows that the outcome of this case will not have “a great impact,” but he hopes that it will help make people more aware that they can stand up for their rights.
“[Police] cannot go around harassing African-American and Hispanic people,” he said. “They just cannot be doing that and think they’re going to get away with it in every case.”
The Hodges have until about the second week of August to file a U.S. Marshal service for process form for each defendant. Failure to do so may result in the dismissal of the case without prejudice and without further notice from the court.