Judge tosses jury's verdict for trooper

Last modified: 7/7/2012 12:00:00 AM
A Merrimack County Superior Court judge this week vacated a jury verdict awarding $1.5 million to former state trooper James Conrad, ruling the state police had immunity from claims they falsely imprisoned Conrad in 2007.

Judge Larry Smukler said in his order that state police officials were immune from the claims because they acted within the scope of their duties and 'with a reasonable belief' their conduct was lawful when they held Conrad against his will at police headquarters in November 2007.

Mark Myrdek, the former state police lieutenant who tackled Conrad, also had immunity because he acted within the scope of his employment and 'did not act in a wanton and reckless manner,' Smukler said in the order, which is dated July 2.

The order set aside the verdict of a Merrimack County jury, which awarded Conrad $1.5 million in May after deciding the state police and Myrdek were both liable for falsely imprisoning the trooper during the November 2007 incident.

Conrad, who was later fired from the state police force, had an emotional breakdown during the incident, which began when superiors told him he needed to respond that day to allegations he had entered his estranged wife's home in violation of a protective order.

After Conrad refused to be interviewed without a union attorney present, Myrdek told the trooper he couldn't leave. He tackled Conrad near a doorway in police headquarters, and the trooper spent the next two hours in Myrdek's office, where he threatened suicide.

Myrdek and state police officials testified that they acted out of concern for the safety of Conrad and his family when they held him and called in the Concord Police, who arrested the trooper and had him admitted to the state psychiatric hospital.

Conrad's attorneys, Chuck Douglas and Kevin Leonard, argued the police had no legal right to hold Conrad because they hadn't initiated the involuntary emergency admission process to the state hospital.

But given the behavior Conrad displayed during the incident - including using 'highly inappropriate language' while talking about his wife and punching a door in police headquarters - the police 'could have reasonably believed' that holding Conrad in protective custody was lawful, Smukler said in the order.

The order came in response to a motion the state's attorneys made during the trial, after Douglas and Leonard finished presenting their evidence. Smukler said he would take their request for a directed verdict under advisement, according to his order.

Yesterday, Douglas said he will appeal the order, which he called a 'mistake.' While Smukler noted the rationale police officials gave for their actions, he overlooked testimony central to Conrad's argument that the police had no legal right to hold him, Douglas said.

'Acting as a 13th juror, he's overturned a unanimous verdict based on evidence that he does not cite in his opinion,' Douglas said. 'I just don't get it. He obviously had a problem with the case, but the jury didn't.'

In the order, Smukler affirmed an argument he previously denied when he rejected the state's attempt to dismiss the case before it went to trial, Douglas said.

Under that reasoning, 'he should have dismissed the case months ago,' Douglas said.

Smukler had said he needed to hear the evidence before he could decide whether police officials were entitled to immunity, said Associate Attorney General Lynmarie Cusack.

'What he said was, 'I need to know more from Mark Myrdek and what he believed he was doing,' ' Cusack said yesterday. She said Smukler opted to hear that evidence during the trial rather than holding a hearing beforehand.

In his order, Smukler noted that the district court judge who presided over Conrad's trial on the charges brought by the Concord police - the trooper was found not guilty - had already ruled the state police acted reasonably during the incident, citing Conrad's emotional state and the 'potential need for protective custody.'

Cusack, who also pointed to that ruling yesterday, said police officials believed Smukler's ruling had affirmed their position.

'The command staff at state police sees it as, if they believe somebody needs to be detained for their safety, the judge sort of said, 'Yes, if you believe that, you're not going to be held liable for a false imprisonment,' ' Cusack said.

As for Conrad, he still feels vindicated by the jury's verdict, Douglas said. 'Obviously, he's disappointed, but still happy that he got heard and the deciders of the facts ruled in his favor,' Douglas said.

Douglas said he hasn't yet decided on his next step, which could be a motion to reconsider Smukler's order or an appeal to the state Supreme Court.

But 'there will be an appeal at the very least, because you can't reweigh the evidence and come out the way he did in the face of a jury's verdict,' Douglas said. 'That's not the way we should be operating in New Hampshire, or there's no point to having a jury trial.'

(Maddie Hanna can be reached at 369-3321 or mhanna@cmonitor.com.)

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