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Judge dismisses claims against UMBC and Baltimore County in lawsuit over sexual assaults

A federal judge has thrown out most claims in a lawsuit filed by five women over the way authorities in Baltimore County handle sexual assault.

The women said they were assaulted by students of the University of Maryland, Baltimore County in incidents between 2014 and 2017. U.S. District Judge Deborah K. Chasanow’s order this week dismissed all claims against the university and the county.

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Her decision allows one woman to proceed with only one count: a claim that two county police detectives and State’s Attorney Scott Shellenberger and others in his office violated her First Amendment rights by trying to stop her from filing charges on her own after they declined to prosecute her case.

The lawsuit alleges unfair treatment of female victims of sexual assault in the county, saying the county has discriminated against women through “witness intimidation and destruction of evidence.” It says county police destroyed the rape kits of 650 women between 2010 and 2018.

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The women also accused UMBC and its police department of failing to make accurate public reports of sexual assault “in order to conceal these crimes and shield male perpetrators from prosecution.”

Chasanow ruled that their lawsuit “fails to state a viable claim” except in the case of the First Amendment issue.

One woman in the lawsuit tried to pursue charges on her own by going to Maryland District Court commissioners after prosecutors declined to pursue her case. State law allows people to apply for charges with a District Court commissioner.

The woman alleges that Shellenberger and others in his office ordered detectives to tell her to stop going to the commissioner’s office or she would face criminal charges. She says that the detectives showed up at her home, where her grandmother answered the door.

“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.

Also, the judge wrote, Shellenberger only told the others to stop their conduct after the woman’s lawyer “inserted himself into this situation.”

“These allegations support a plausible inference that the Defendants only ordered the officers to back off once they realized their illegally intimidating tactics would be discovered by her attorney,” the judge wrote.

Shellenberger and a spokesman for the police department declined to comment, citing the pending litigation. A county government spokesman also declined to comment.

The Baltimore Sun is withholding the women’s names because it typically does not identify victims of sexual assault. The attorney for the women couldn’t be reached for comment Friday.

Last year, Chasanow dismissed a previous version of the lawsuit, writing that it was an “overambitious pleading” and that the women hadn’t shown they had a case on various claims. She allowed them to file another complaint, which they did.

In the latest ruling, Chasanow again described the lawsuit as overly broad.

“In an ultimately unsuccessful fourth attempt to craft a class action complaint, Plaintiffs devote more than 100 pages, nearly 800 numbered paragraphs, and more than 50 exhibits, in an overbroad, unfocused recitation of conclusory allegations, some masquerading as ‘facts,’” she wrote.

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In addition to Shellenberger, the defendants included UMBC President Freeman Hrabowski, university police chief Paul Dillon, and two former county police chiefs, Terrence Sheridan and James Johnson.

In a message Thursday to UMBC community members, Hrabowski and Provost Philip Rous wrote that when the lawsuit was filed two years ago, it “focused campus attention on our community’s culture and processes related to sexual assault prevention and response.”

This “deep look in the mirror strengthened the campus in important ways,” they wrote, including the creation of a new Office of Equity and Inclusion, an Inclusion Council and enhanced Title IX training.

“In all matters of equity and inclusion, compliance with the law is essential but certainly not sufficient,” they wrote. “We are proud of the thoughtful and transparent approach our campus community is continuing to take to more fully understand the issue of sexual assault prevention and response.”

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