PORTLAND — A corrections officer at the Cumberland County jail watched Wednesday as his attorney fought for him to keep his job.
Attorney Kristine Hanly, representing Nicholas Stein, argued that he should not have to serve a one-year suspension of his certificate to work in that capacity for dragging an injured inmate 127 feet across a concrete floor.
Stein appealed his suspension to the Maine Supreme Judicial Court, which heard oral arguments on Wednesday. The Board of Trustees of the Criminal Justice Academy in Vassalboro had ordered Stein’s certificate of eligibility as a corrections officer suspended after concluding “by a preponderance of the evidence” he assaulted inmate Brian Cote on June 17, 2011.
A jury acquitted Stein of a criminal assault charge involving that incident. The standard for conviction at a criminal trial is higher, and requires proof beyond a reasonable doubt.
Several justices of the Maine Supreme Judicial Court questioned Stein’s fitness as a corrections officer if he went into shock as he said he did after Cote jumped from the top rail of a second-floor deck at the jail and broke both ankles.
Hanly said Stein, who had 12 years’ experience as a corrections officer, was “in shock, in fear” and in a rush to get Cote to the medical unit. She said the entire event took place in 46 seconds, and is shown on a jail video recording which the supreme court justices viewed. There was no sound with the video.
Stein’s actions on the video are described in Superior Court Justice Thomas Warren’s decision affirming the suspension: “He saw Cote lying on the floor screaming in pain and knew Cote was injured … There is also no dispute that Stein then handcuffed Cote and dragged Cote by the shirt collar, with Cote’s injured feet dragging along behind, for a distance of 127 feet to the medical unit.”
Associate Justice Ellen Gorman asked whether Hanly would concede that Stein’s actions were “a gross deviation from what we should expect a corrections officer to do in those circumstances.”
Hanly said no, “not in the moment” and that Stein did not act recklessly. She also said his actions were without malice.
One justice noted that Stein had some emergency medical training and should have known better than to drag someone who might have back injuries.
Assistant Attorney General Dennis Smith, representing the academy’s trustees, told the justices, “No one, whether an inmate or a person in the street, should be dragged in that fashion.”
The academy board originally proposed a revocation of Stein’s certification as a corrections officer, but modified it at the recommendation of its hearing officer.
Hanly told the judges that Stein was terminated from his job for six months in connection with the incident, but was reinstated and has continued to work there.
Cote has filed a civil lawsuit in federal court against Stein, other corrections personnel and the jail itself over the event.
The Maine Supreme Judicial Court issues decisions in writing weeks and sometimes months after arguments are heard.