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More than a decade after violating a teen’s rights, Baltimore police ordered to pay in misconduct lawsuit

A Baltimore judge has ordered the city to pay up in a long-running battle over a police misconduct lawsuit involving a teen who was dropped off in Howard County without shoes and a cell phone by plainclothes officers in 2009.

The city had maintained that it should not have to pay because the officers were acting “outside the scope” of their jobs. But Circuit Court Judge Jeffrey M. Geller cited a ruling by the state’s highest court in the Gun Trace Task Force cases, saying that the city must pay in cases where officers commit misconduct that occurs in the course of doing their jobs.

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A. Dwight Pettit, the victim’s attorney, said the 10-year legal battle has been “absurd” and a “waste of taxpayer money.” The plaintiff, Michael Johnson, was 15 years old at the time, and was fatally shot in West Baltimore two years ago at age 25 while the case was still winding through the courts.

New Solicitor Jim Shea said he was “reviewing the options that we have, and I’ll discuss with the mayor what he wants to do.”

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Johnson said he was ordered into an unmarked van by officers Tyrone Francis, Gregory Hellen and Milton Smith III on May 4, 2009, and driven to Patapsco State Park. Earlier in the day, the same officers drove the teen’s friend across town and left him in East Baltimore.

The officers were criminally charged, in a case tried personally by then-State’s Attorney Gregg Bernstein. Hellen was cleared of all charges. Francis and Smith were acquitted of kidnapping charges but convicted of misconduct; a judge later downgraded their convictions to probation before judgment.

In Johnson’s civil case, a jury awarded him $500,000 in 2011. The amount was reduced to $280,000 by the court, to comply with the state cap on damages.

But the city balked at paying, and the case has been tied up ever since.

Geller wrote in an opinion Wednesday that “although not expressly authorized by BPD, the actions of the officers were nevertheless incidental to the conduct that was authorized by BPD and thus within the scope of employment.”

He drew on the Court of Appeals decision in the case of Ivan Potts, which the city used as a test case for whether it would have to pay judgments in the Gun Trace Task Force-related litigation.

Johnson was fatally shot June 2, 2018 while sitting on the steps of a home with two other people. Police identified two suspects; one was shot and killed later in 2018, while the other was convicted of murder and sentenced to life in prison.

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