Baltimore seeks to avoid paying judgments involving Gun Trace Task Force officers

Attorneys for the city of Baltimore moved in court Friday to prevent taxpayers from footing the bill for lawsuits related to misconduct arising from the Gun Trace Task Force corruption scandal.

City solicitor Andre Davis said the Gun Trace Task Force officers were acting outside the scope of their employment and should be exempt from rules requiring the city to pay out judgments when officers are sued. That would also severely limit — if not wipe out completely — the amount of money alleged victims can collect.

“They were purporting to be on the clock as Baltimore City police officers. That was, in effect, a disguise,” Davis said in an interview. “Their purpose was to enrich themselves any opportunity they had.”

Paul Howard Zukerberg, a Washington-based attorney representing a man who filed suit against three of the officers as well as the city, called the move a “sideshow” that should be thrown out of court.

“The police fabricated evidence and sent innocent people to jail,” Zukerberg said. “Now when it’s time for them to take responsibility for what they’ve done, they're trying to use every trick in the book to get out of fixing the wrongs and the harms they created.”

Eight officers — Sgts. Thomas Allers and Wayne Jenkins, and Detectives Momodu Gondo, Daniel Hersl, Evodio Hendrix, Jemell Rayam, Marcus Taylor and Maurice Ward — were convicted of racketeering charges after being indicted by federal authorities for stealing from citizens they stopped on the street and taking thousands of dollars in unearned overtime pay. The trial of two of those officers revealed widespread misconduct, including illegal stops and searches and drug dealing.

The officers have all been sentenced, receiving between seven and 25 years in federal prison.

The city is facing the prospect of dozens of lawsuits from people who say they were victimized by the officers.

Davis, the solicitor, has previously said the city would not indemnify the officers. The city’s court action Friday was filed as a complaint for “declaratory judgment,” or an opinion from the courts that the city can avoid indemnification. The city’s Fraternal Order of Police lodge is also named as a defendant.

Davis admitted the request is a new question for the courts.

“Maryland courts have never been called upon to explain what it means to act within the scope of your employment,” he said in an interview.

Davis said the city would still have to provide lawyers to the officers in court regardless of the outcome of Friday’s complaint.

Chaz Ball, an attorney whose firm represents city police officers, said he would not have a comment Friday.

Several lawsuits already filed against the Gun Trace Task Force officers seek to link the city, police department and state’s attorney’s office to enabling the officers or turning a blind eye to misconduct. Earlier this month, the city won a motion to be dropped as a defendant in one such lawsuit, but would have to indemnify the officers if the plaintiff prevails.

Attorney Steve Silverman is representing Umar Burley and Brent Mathews, who had drugs planted on them and spent years in federal prison. He said the city was “thinking outside the box” but the move “is not going to work.”

“Each case has different facts … and it is thus misplaced to ask for a blanket conclusion on these very complicated legal issues,” Silverman said. “We have made allegations that if proven would implicate the Police Department for negligence in allowing the [Gun Trace Task Force] to operate for so long as an unchecked rogue unit without any oversight.”

Zukerberg, meanwhile, who is representing Ivan Potts, who filed a lawsuit against the officers in 2016, months before the indictments were handed up. Zukerberg noted that the city had indemnified the Gun Trace Task Force officers in earlier misconduct claims they faced. For example, the city paid $100,000 to settle a case against Rayam for a fatal shooting, and had covered Hersl in multiple lawsuits totaling $200,000.

“Instead of getting rid of the officers earlier, they indemnified them in prior cases, with no discipline, no supervision, and they got themselves into bigger trouble. And now that they're in bigger trouble, they don’t want to pay,” he said.

The ACLU has said that it supports the city’s position about not paying punitive damages awarded against officers but is opposed to it refusing to indemnify officers.

“By saying that the City will not pay any damages awarded against the GTTF officers, they may make it impossible for the people those officers harmed and stole from to ever actually get compensated for those harms,” said ACLU staff attorney David Rocah in a blog post earlier this year.

Prosecutors are reviewing more than 1,000 cases involving the convicted officers and have overturned more than 175 convictions. A task force established by the General Assembly is set to begin reviewing the corruption scandal later this year.

jfenton@baltsun.com

twitter.com/justin_fenton

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