A lawsuit that alleges Baltimore County authorities violated a woman’s First Amendment rights may proceed to trial after a federal judge denied immunity for the county’s head prosecutor.
U.S. District Judge Deborah K. Chasanow this month rejected a motion by State’s Attorney Scott Shellenberger asking the court to issue a summary judgment on the allegations. The suit alleged that county police detectives, Shellenberger and others in his office violated a woman’s constitutional rights by trying to stop her from filing charges on her own after they declined to prosecute her case.
By denying the motion, Chasanow opens the door for the case to either be settled or proceed to trial; the woman’s attorney says they are preparing to move forward with a trial.
The lawsuit stems from allegations by a former Towson University student who said she was raped by three baseball players from the University of Maryland, Baltimore County. The Baltimore Sun typically does not identify people who say they are survivors of sexual assault.
The student sought charges against the men by going to Maryland District Court commissioners after prosecutors would not pursue her case.
Her first application was denied after the commissioner conferred with Assistant State’s Attorney Lisa Dever. She successfully filed a second application for charges with a court commissioner, who charged the men with rape and sex offenses in 2018.
Detectives stopped the criminal summonses from being delivered, and Shellenberger’s office — who had said they wouldn’t prosecute any charges against the men — ordered detectives to tell her to stop applying for charges or she could face a lawsuit or criminal charges, according to detectives’ notes from the case. Detectives and an armed, uniformed county police officer showed up at her home, where her grandmother answered the door. Detectives spoke with her grandmother but never ordered the woman directly to cease, according to court records.
“Honestly we sent the detective there just trying to give her friendly advice,” Shellenberger said in an interview. “We didn’t want her to get sued or charged with a crime by [the men accused of rape]. We were trying to help and protect her and it unfortunately has gotten twisted.”
The State’s Attorney’s Office ultimately dropped the woman’s charges against the three men.
The former Towson student was one of five women who in 2018 joined a class-action lawsuit alleging that county authorities and officials at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County mishandled sexual assault investigations and fostered a culture of indifference and bias toward victims.
Chasanow threw out that suit, determining that the women failed to show they had a case on claims described in their complaint. She allowed one count, the claim of an infringement of constitutional rights, to move forward.
“The remaining allegations in this lawsuit are just an example of how women were and continue to be treated by Mr. Shellenberger, his subordinates and by the Baltimore County Police Department,” said Rignal Baldwin V, the woman’s attorney. “The end goal was and continues to be accountability for inexcusable behavior directed at victims of sexual assault.”
The State’s Attorneys Office asked the court to decide the case without a trial, arguing county authorities are entitled to qualified immunity and that the woman can’t meet the obligatory burden of proof that her rights were infringed upon.
But Chasanow wrote there is sufficient evidence that her rights were violated. Officials should have known that they could not use “threats and intimidation,” as defined in previous court decisions, to retaliate against the woman for pursuing the grievance, she wrote.
“They are not entitled to qualified immunity,” she wrote.
The Baltimore County Police Department declined to comment, citing pending litigation.
It’s “very rare” for the court to deny immunity to a prosecutor, said David Jaros, a University of Baltimore School of Law professor.
Qualified immunity generally protects prosecutors when they perform duties outside of their core responsibility. The law protects government officials accused of violating constitutional rights.
The Morning Sun
“Qualified immunity has done an enormous job of shielding prosecutors who have failed to live up to their ethical obligations,” Jaros said.
Still, he said, sex crimes are difficult to litigate, and prosecutors have an obligation not to take cases to court they don’t think will succeed.
“It’s very easy to say we should believe victims — but the truth is we presume innocence in our system, and the prosecutor should not be pursuing a case where it doesn’t believe the evidence supports a conviction,” Jaros said.
At the same time, he added, “prosecutors do have to be careful not to simply either disbelieve [a survivor], or not to assume that a jury will necessarily disbelieve,” he said.
County authorities have been criticized in recent years for their record on handling and prosecuting sexual assault cases. A task force in 2019 found that law enforcement rarely tested evidence from rape cases or filed charges in cases that victims did not report right away.
Shellenberger, who has served as the county’s top prosecutor since 2006, previously opposed state legislation to require local police to test rape kits, saying law enforcement has limited resources and that in many cases a suspect’s identity is not in question since the victim and perpetrator know each other. He later changed his position.
Baltimore Sun reporter Alison Knezevich contributed to this article.