The city of Baltimore committed an “illegal act” when it took $31,500 from a woman who settled a lawsuit and then spoke out publicly about allegations that police beat her, a federal judge ruled Monday while ordering the city to pay the money back, plus interest.
Ashley Overbey Underwood sued three Baltimore police officers, alleging they beat, tasered, verbally abused and arrested her in 2012 after she called 911 to report a burglary. The city settled the case in 2014 for $63,000. After The Sun reported the original settlement, Overbey Underwood responded to accusations that she initiated the arrest to get a big payout, and gave her version of events online.
The city said Overbey Underwood violated a “non-disparagement clause”, otherwise known as a gag order, and kept half of the settlement as a penalty.
The gag orders have since been ruled unconstitutional and the city has said it stopped using them years ago. Despite those rulings, the city continued to fight Overbey Underwood and to keep her money, according to federal court records.
“By its conduct in unconstitutionally enforcing the now discredited clause, the City withheld half of the settlement proceeds,” wrote U.S. District Judge Deborah K. Chasanow wrote.
“The seeming inference is that their illegal act should not be undone simply because no one thought, or even suspected, it was illegal at the time,” Chasanow wrote. “Just as ‘strong public interests’ render the clause unenforceable, those interests counsel against allowing the City to keep the fruits of such improper enforcement."
The judge ordered the money to be paid back, plus interest at 6-percent annually.
Last year, the Baltimore City Council unanimously passed a bill that bans the use of gag orders in city settlements for police brutality and discrimination cases. The move followed the Fourth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruling that the city’s use of them was unconstitutional.
On Tuesday, Overbey Underwood, who was joined in the lawsuit by The American Civil Liberties Union and the Baltimore Brew, called Chasanow’s ruling a victory for free speech, especially for Black residents at a time when issues of racial injustice and police violence are at the forefront of the national conversation.
“It’s been hurtful to see and hear so many horrible things that happened,” Overbey Underwood said in a statement released by the ACLU of Maryland. “But at the end of the day, it’s been amazing that we as a people stood together and was able to stand up to the bullies. If you have anything unjustly done to you, don’t give up, no matter how big that bully is."
Baltimore officials have paid millions of dollars in recent years to settle misconduct lawsuits and allegations of abuse by its police officers, some of whom were indicted and sent to federal prison. Critics of the non-disclosure clauses say they shield bad officers from public scrutiny.
City Council President Brandon Scott said the judge’s ruling was “the right call.”
“As a city, we must own our mistakes and be accountable to Baltimore residents,” he said.
Baltimore City Solicitor Dana Moore said the city won’t appeal and "will be working to get payment to Ms. Overbey [Underwood] as expeditiously as possible.”
The ACLU said in a statement that justice for Overbey Underwood was long overdue.
“This order finally brings about well-deserved resolution for Ms. Underwood, who, throughout this long ordeal, never wavered in her commitment to fundamental free speech rights, notwithstanding the City’s bullying and thievery,” said Deborah Jeon, Legal Director for the ACLU of Maryland.
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“For free speech to truly have meaning it must protect the rights of all people, and for too long Black people have had their free speech rights denied when they challenge abuse at the hands of police," Leon said. "This victory helps create a precedent that advances the First Amendment, so that hopefully one day it will truly protect everyone in the United States.”