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Baltimore County

Settlement reached in lawsuit over alleged First Amendment violations by Baltimore County prosecutors and police in sexual assault case

Baltimore County prosecutors and police have reached a settlement with a woman who argued her constitutional rights were violated when they tried to stop her from filing charges against men she says sexually assaulted her in 2017, court records show.

The case against State’s Attorney Scott Shellenberger, others in his office and county police detectives was slated for trial in U.S. District Court starting Tuesday. The case was stayed this week, however, a courts website said, because “the parties have advised that they have settled, contingent upon approval of the Board of Public Works.”

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A letter included in the case file from an assistant attorney general, Wendy Shiff, said she expects the settlement to be considered by the state Board of Public Works at an Oct. 12 meeting. Shiff wrote that the terms include the dismissal of all claims by the woman, but she didn’t include the settlement amount.

Raquel Coombs, a spokeswoman for the attorney general’s office, confirmed Thursday a settlement was reached and is pending approval by the state spending board. She did not provide the settlement amount or a copy of the settlement itself, saying there was not yet an executed agreement and that the office “is not disclosing details” until board approval.

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The settlement would bring to a close a yearslong court dispute over how county officials handled the woman’s reported sexual assault and others, an issue that has dogged Shellenberger in recent years.

The woman suing Shellenberger and police said he improperly sent police to her home to try to stop her from pursuing criminal charges on her own after his office declined prosecution. His attorneys have said detectives were sent to warn the woman she risked a civil lawsuit or criminal charges.

Shellenberger declined to comment when reached by phone Thursday. the attorney general’s spokeswoman declined to comment on behalf of defendants from the Baltimore County State’s Attorney’s Office and Baltimore County Police did not reply to a request for comment on behalf of its two police officers in the lawsuit.

Rignal Baldwin V, the woman’s attorney, said his client “fought hard for accountability and she succeeded.”

“Her willingness to fight for her rights, and the rights of others, helped change the way Baltimore County deals with crimes against women,” said Baldwin, of the law firm Baldwin | Seraina. “There is still much to be done, but she has done more than her share, and I am happy she finally got the resolution she sought.”

The Baltimore Sun typically does not identify people who say they were sexually assaulted.

The woman’s allegation stemmed from a broader class-action lawsuit in which five female students accused Baltimore County authorities and University of Maryland, Baltimore County officials of mishandling sexual assault complaints, bias against women and systemic indifference to sexual violence.

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Most of those claims were thrown out by U.S. District Judge Deborah K. Chasanow in 2020, including all those against UMBC and Baltimore County, but she allowed one count to continue: one woman’s claim her First Amendment rights were violated.

Late last year, Chasanow denied immunity for the county’s head prosecutor, Shellenberger, opening the door for the case to proceed to trial or to be settled. The remaining defendants included Shellenberger; his now-deputy Lisa Dever; Bonnie Fox, an investigator in his office; and Baltimore County Police detectives Kristin Burrows and Nicholas Tomas.

A trial date was scheduled for next Tuesday and court records indicate it was set to last six to seven days.

According to the then-college student, three UMBC baseball players sexually assaulted her in 2017 after they went to an apartment with her and another female student. The women told police they’d blacked out or passed out and were sexually assaulted. The male students have said the acts were consensual.

The Baltimore County State’s Attorney’s Office declined to bring criminal charges in the case — prompting one of the women to try to bring charges against the men herself by filing a statement of charges with a court commissioner, which is allowed under state law. A first attempt was unsuccessful, but a second commissioner charged the men with rape and sex offenses in 2018.

Before the criminal summonses could be delivered, police and prosecutors intervened, court records stated.

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Shellenberger ordered police to tell the woman to stop applying for charges, according to the woman’s legal filings. Police then showed up at her home and spoke with her grandmother.

The prosecutors, who ultimately dropped the criminal charges against the three men, said in court records the detectives were sent to tell her to “stop going to the commissioner or she would risk facing a civil [lawsuit] or criminal charges.” Prosecutors wrote in a 2020 court filing that the woman needed to be advised to stop filing charges to fulfill the requirements of a criminal harassment charge against her.

Chasanow wrote, however, officials “should have known that they could not retaliate against her [for filing an application for charges] through threats and intimidation.”

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A reasonable jury, she added, could find the actions of defendants “conveyed a message to stop or face consequences.”

“Having police show up at one’s house and pose demanding questions to one’s grandmother as to one’s whereabouts, receiving repeated calls as to the same, and attempting to track one down while in class would collectively chill a person of ordinary firmness from attempting to refile a criminal complaint,” Chasanow wrote when allowing the count to move forward.

Chasanow also noted that Shellenberger only put a stop to the actions when the woman’s lawyer got involved. She called it a “plausible inference” the police were only called off “once they realized their illegally intimidating tactics would be discovered by her attorney.”

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Shellenberger’s record on sexual assault cases was raised as an issue in his primary election race earlier this year. Questions surrounded his office’s decisions in specific cases, its treatment of survivors and its lack of transparency around outcomes and demographics.

The county created a task force to review how police and prosecutors conduct sexual assault investigations in 2019, after criticism including this federal lawsuit. It found flaws in evidence testing from rape cases and a hesitancy to bring criminal charges in cases where victims couldn’t prove they physically resisted.

It made numerous recommendations, including written sexual assault policies and better communication between police and prosecutors. A follow-up audit in 2021 found there are still challenges for Baltimore County police and prosecutors around interviewing victims with mental health issues or disabilities and recommended considering adding advocates for victims in interviews and discussions around charging.

UMBC previously paid the three former baseball players $150,000 each to settle a defamation case they brought against the university after the college’s newspaper named them in an article about the woman’s rape allegations. The university is under a U.S. Department of Justice investigation into its Title IX compliance and response to sexual harassment complaints.


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