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Charles County jury rules in Coffey's favor

La Plata, MD - A Charles County Circuit Court jury determined that former sheriff Rex Coffey had full authority, according to county code, to demote Troy Berry from his command staff position as captain in 2010.

The verdict was the culmination of a week-long trial in La Plata between the current and former sheriff over Berry’s contention that when he was demoted from captain back to lieutenant following Coffey’s re-election in the November 2010 campaign for political reasons.

Despite disparagement over what the former sheriff may or may not have said to Berry when he was being put back in rank, it appeared his actions spoke louder than any words he may have uttered at the time.

Coffey’s attorney, Jason L. Levine, was able to convince the jury that his client’s intentions were not malicious, and that Coffey stepped Berry up three pay grades despite the loss of rank, so that his salary would not be as adversely affected.

He also demonstrated that when Berry was given an unfavorable performance evaluation, Coffey said, “just change it” to a favorable review.

“He didn’t want to hurt Berry,” Levine uttered like a broken record throughout the trial, “he just wanted him off the command staff.”

In fact, it appeared from the outset that Coffey had the law on his side.

The Charles County Code clearly outlined that the sheriff could appoint or demote people to his command staff at his pleasure, “with or without cause,” Levine stressed.

The eight-woman, two-man jury agreed when they returned their verdict after about an hour of deliberation Friday, Jan. 30.

The fear in local political and law enforcement circles was that a negative verdict might predicate having to change county code to alleviate any “political retribution” from officers in the future. That seems unlikely to happen in the wake of the decision for Coffey.

Joseph "Buddy" Gibson, a former officer under Coffey's tenure who was called as a witness in the case, said in the aftermath that he was pleased with the decision.

"I just felt given the evidence that there was no way a jury could see it any other way," he said.

Contact Joseph Norris at joe.norris@thebaynet.com

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