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Shooting victims allege in lawsuit that Baltimore police hold their keys, cash long after needed, victimizing them twice

Baltimore police unconstitutionally seize and hold the car keys, money and clothes of shooting victims for months without establishing their value as evidence in criminal investigations, according to a federal lawsuit.

Two Baltimore City residents and a Baltimore County resident say they were the victims of shootings in the city and that investigating officers took their valuables and haven’t returned them. The suit names the department, Police Commissioner Michael Harrison, former commissioners Gary Tuggle and Darryl De Sousa as well as some named and unnamed detectives and officers.

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The three are part of what lawyers say is a larger group of victims who will seek to certify the case as a class action against the city.

One of the plaintiffs is a woman who was shot along with her 11-year-old son at a Cherry Hill playground in March 2019. She still hasn’t received her belongings even though the attacker, Nichole George, was found not criminally responsible for the shootings in September 2019 and committed to a psychiatric institution, the lawsuit says.

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Tianna Mays, an attorney for Lawyers Committee for Civil Rights Under Law, which represents the three plaintiffs, said the issue deals with problems with the department’s written search and seizure policies. The group filed the suit alongside the Orrick Herrington Sutcliffe law firm earlier this month, as part of the expected class action.

According to the lawsuit, the department’s “Control of Property and Evidence” policy tells officers only to seize “evidentiary property” until a case is completed but fails to define what items fall under that definition. As a result, the department has no standards for what is reasonable search and seizure, violating the Fourth Amendment of the U.S. Constitution, the lawsuit alleges.

“Because there is no definition that guides officers or their supervisors … what happens is they just collect everything, even if it has no evidentiary value,” Mays said. “We’re talking about car keys, money, wigs [and] belts.”

The Baltimore Police Department referred requests for comment about the suit to City Solicitor Jim Shea, who said his office had not yet been served with the complaint, but that he’s reviewed a copy and is investigating its claims.

“We are looking into the allegations,” Shea said. “We take very seriously our obligation to reform the police department in accordance with the consent decree, which is pending in federal court.”

Mays said the practice exacerbates the victims’ recovery once they’re released from the hospital.

The lawsuit alleges that an officer told Faye Cottman, the Cherry Hill playground victim, in May 2020 that she could retrieve her property because the case was closed, but “first needed her sergeant’s permission due to the COVID-19 pandemic” to return it in-person. Attempts to contact the officer after that were unsuccessful, the suit alleges.

In another incident, the lawsuit says that police seized a car key, clothes, cellphone and $400 in cash from Amber Spencer, who was shot in the head and chest in March 2020 while attending a cookout in Baltimore’s Broadway East neighborhood.

After Spencer recovered, the suit alleges that police again said that the items couldn’t be returned immediately to her because of the ongoing coronavirus pandemic. She was told that she would need to wait until the city and state reach “Phase 3″ of the COVID-19 reopening plan, the lawsuit said.

Mays pushed back on the idea that the pandemic is a justifiable excuse for holding the plaintiffs’ property, saying that the department has stopped communicating with the victims.

“Now that the pandemic is here, they want to use that as an excuse and that’s unacceptable,” she said. “We followed up with officers on multiple occasions and they just stopped returning our calls.”

In a third case, the lawsuit says that police have held onto a cellphone, bracelet, necklace and several articles of clothing from Damon Gray, who was shot in Southwest Baltimore on June 29, 2019.

Mays said this conduct will only further fray relations between the city and its police department, as the Justice Department already had found that officers routinely violated city residents’ rights during searches and seizures as part of the investigation that led to the consent decree agreement in 2017.

“We have people who are literally victims of violent crimes … and this is how they’re being treated by the people who are sworn to protect them,” Mays said.

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