The state Board of Public Works agreed to pay $55,000 Wednesday to settle a lawsuit in which an African-American motorist alleged that two state troopers illegally searched him and his car in a case of racial profiling.
The board — made up of Gov. Martin O'Malley, Comptroller Peter Franchot and Treasurer Nancy K. Kopp — ratified the deal reached by the attorney general's office after being told the cost of contesting the case could exceed the amount of the settlement.
Nevertheless, according to the state, Maryland State Police Superintendent Marcus Brown believes the case can be used to train troopers to avoid bias in police activity.
Seth Rosenthal, lead attorney for plaintiff David K. Martin of Philadelphia, said the settlement is unusually large for a case brought against the state police by an individual.
"That's an indication the state police realized their troopers' conduct was problematic here," said Rosenthal, of Venable LLP's Washington office. "Hopefully, this settlement will be one more step along the way toward curbing the problem or eliminating the problem."
Rosenthal said Martin will receive the entire settlement because the firm, which has been involved in racial-profiling cases against the state police since 2002, handled the case for free.
State troopers have been accused for decades of singling out African-American and Hispanic motorists for more frequent stops and searches on Interstate 95, known as an active drug-trafficking corridor. Some of the allegations have been upheld by courts.
Martin was stopped along I-95 in Cecil County in October 2009 by Trooper Jeremiah Gussoni, allegedly for speeding and other driving violations.
The lawsuit, filed in 2011, alleged that during the initial stop, Gussoni unlawfully searched Martin and continued to detain him after finding no contraband. According to Martin, Gussoni called for backup to search the car and was joined by Sgt. Christopher Conner, who conducted a second search of Martin and found a loaded handgun in his waistband.
According to the suit, a search of Martin's car found no contraband, but Martin was charged with illegal possession of a handgun. The complaint says he received only a warning on the alleged traffic offenses. Martin contended that the weapon was legally registered in Pennsylvania.
The state dropped the case when Martin appeared in Cecil County District Court in December 2009, the suit said. But the suit said that shortly after Martin left the courthouse, Conner stopped him again at almost exactly the spot of the first encounter — allegedly for driving 73 mph in a 65-mph zone.
Claiming to have smelled marijuana, Conner allegedly conducted a pat-down of Martin and a search of the car but found nothing.
The suit alleged that after Martin filed a public information request with the state police for records of the December 2009 stop, Gussoni sought to revive the handgun possession charges and add a new charge of gun trafficking. Upon his arrest at his Philadelphia home, police seized a handgun and assault-style weapon.
Though Martin eventually was acquitted on all charges, he spent 20 days in jail after being arrested by Pennsylvania police, the suit said.
The state police contended that Gussoni and Conner acted properly in the search and had probable cause to seek charges against Martin. In a ruling in March, U.S. District Judge William D. Quarles Jr. threw out seven counts of the lawsuit but allowed six others to move forward.
In May, the state and Martin reached the settlement approved Wednesday.Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun