Lawyers see opportunity in Justice Department report on Baltimore police

Vanita Gupta, right, of the U.S. Department of Justice talks about the findings of an investigation into the Baltimore Police Department as police Commissioner Kevin Davis, City Council president Bernard C. Jack Young and Comptroller Joan Pratt listen during a news conference at City Hall.
Vanita Gupta, right, of the U.S. Department of Justice talks about the findings of an investigation into the Baltimore Police Department as police Commissioner Kevin Davis, City Council president Bernard C. Jack Young and Comptroller Joan Pratt listen during a news conference at City Hall. (Kim Hairston / Baltimore Sun)

The blistering Department of Justice report on discriminatory policing and civil rights violations in Baltimore could provide a boon to one population, legal analysts say: people looking to sue the city over alleged misconduct.

Several say the report released last week could strengthen the cases of people with claims against the police.


"Lawyers suing the city for police brutality will get a lot of help from the report about where they should look for the shortcomings in the department in training and personnel matters," said Jose Anderson, a law professor at the University of Baltimore. "It will help them to know where to look, what to subpoena, what documents they should request to examine."

Baltimore has agreed to pay more than $12 million in settlements for police misconduct since 2011.


But City Solicitor George Nilson said the number of claims against police has been trending downward — and he doesn't expect that to change. About 120 lawsuits were filed against police in 2009, he said. In recent years, the number has been closer to 60 a year.

Nilson expects some attorneys will use the findings to argue for larger settlements. They could also try to enter the report as evidence in court, as lawyers elsewhere have done with other Justice Department reports.

"We all assume that plaintiffs' lawyers will attempt to make use of the report," Nilson said. "Clearly, some plaintiffs' lawyers will see opportunity."

An agreement between the city and the Justice Department to address the problems identified in the report contains a provision saying the deal is not an admission of liability by the city or the Police Department.


Should a plaintiff attempt to introduce the report as evidence in a lawsuit, it would be up to the judge to decide whether to allow it and how much weight to give it.

"Somebody can't just throw the report into evidence and say this report talks about all this bad stuff," Nilson said.

Baltimore attorney J. Wyndal Gordon said he is researching how to use the report as evidence.

"I think the DOJ has come down very hard with some very empirical evidence to show that there are some policies and practices that involve discrimination and violating individuals' constitutional rights," Gordon said. "A lot of us are still going through [the report]. ... But we do believe that it is going to be a very important piece to civil litigation in the future."

Gordon represents Aaron Winston, whose arm was broken by police during an arrest in February.

A jury acquitted Winston of all charges this week, and the 25-year-old said he is planning to pursue a lawsuit against police.

David Malik, a civil rights attorney in Cleveland, said he did not see an increase in lawsuits there after the Justice Department found that the Cleveland police had a pattern and practice of using excessive force.

But "on a certain level," he said, "it's changed the way we frame the discovery in the cases."

"Prior to these DOJ reports, [the city] would tell you the information wasn't there," he said. "And you would either have to accept that or try to take other steps to find it. But when you actually know it's there … it's additional light at the end of the tunnel."

He gave an example: After federal investigators found problems with police response to people with mental illness, a lawyer would know to request data on mental health calls.

Lawyers in Cleveland have cited the Justice Department report in lawsuits. The family of Tanisha Anderson, who died in 2014 after being restrained by police, has filed one such lawsuit.

"The death of this joyful, loving, unarmed 37 year old woman in the midst of a mental health crisis is part of the pattern and practice of excessive force by the Cleveland Police Division (CPD) officers recently documented by a Department of Justice (DOJ) Investigative report," lawyers wrote in a court filing.

The goal of a federal consent decree is to fix structural problems, not to address individual claims brought by private citizens, said Randolph M. McLaughlin, a civil rights attorney in New York and professor at the Pace University law school.

"That has to be done by individual lawyers," McLaughlin said.

But he said the findings could bolster legal arguments against Baltimore police.

"I certainly would use it as a civil rights lawyer, as evidence that the city had a policy of either violating constitutional rights of African-Americans, or being deliberately indifferent to those violations," McLaughlin said.

The federal investigation in Baltimore covered the years from 2010 to 2015.

The statute of limitations in Maryland for many civil claims involving police misconduct is three years, but there are exceptions in some wrongful-death actions.

Latoya Francis-Williams, an attorney who handles civil lawsuits against Baltimore police, said she now wants to seek the raw data that federal investigators received from the city.

"I cannot think of any reason under the law why the information should now be protected given that it's in a public report," Francis-Williams said.

Local attorney A. Dwight Pettit has filed many lawsuits against city police.

In the long term, he said, the Justice Department report could help the city reduce civil claims because it is expected to lead to reforms.

"If everything is put into place under the consent decree, then it seems like the correct response of the police officers on the street would either be to conform or to get another career," Pettit said.