BALTIMORE — A federal judge gave the green light Thursday to a multi-million-dollar lawsuit alleging Baltimore Police officers wrongfully imprisoned two men by planting drugs on them to justify a deadly high-speed chase in 2010, denying motions by the police department and several officers to dismiss the case.
The incident involved members of the corrupt Gun Trace Task Force now serving time in federal prison and the late Det. Sean Suiter, who was found fatally shot in the head in West Baltimore one day before he was scheduled to testify before a federal grand jury considering charges in the sprawling federal investigation of the corrupt gun unit.
Umar Burley and Brent Matthews filed their lawsuit in June 2018 after officers involved in their arrest were implicated in that broader investigation and their arrest became part of federal prosecutors’ case against the unit’s leader, Sgt. Wayne Jenkins.
Jenkins pleaded guilty in January 2018 to planting heroin in Burley’s car and a raft of other charges related to robbing people and selling drugs under the guise of police work. He was sentenced to 25 years in prison.
Suiter, whose death in 2017 has been alternately found to be a homicide by the medical examiner and a suicide by a panel of experts convened to review the case, was also at the scene of the car crash. The suit initially named Suiter’s estate as a defendant, but no longer does. Federal prosecutors have said Suiter was duped by Jenkins into finding the planted drugs in Burley’s car.
Former Deputy Police Commissioner Dean Palmere, who was one of the GTTF’s supervisors, is accused in the lawsuit of knowing of abusive practices by Jenkins and allowing them to continue. Palmere retired from the department in February 2018, and has not been charged with any crimes.
Keith Gladstone, another former officer named in the lawsuit, is accused of bringing the planted drugs to the scene. Gladstone pleaded guilty in May to violating the civil rights of another man in a separate incident by planting a gun near him after Jenkins deliberately struck the man with his vehicle.
U.S. District Judge Ellen Hollander, in an order issued Thursday, let stand for trial multiple counts alleging the fabrication of evidence, malicious prosecution and the intentional infliction of emotional distress. She also let stand claims of a pattern of police abuses that Burley and Matthews cite to argue liability for what happened to them on the part of the department and the supervisors named in the case, such as Palmere.
Burley and Matthews were in a vehicle in April 2010 when they say masked officers surrounded their car. Believing they were being attacked, Burley sped away. He later crashed into another vehicle, killing 86-year-old Elbert Davis. Heroin was planted in the car, the sprawling federal investigation into the GTTF has established.
A police spokesman declined to comment on the case Thursday. Andre Davis, the city solicitor and a former judge himself who has argued the department should not be liable for the rogue actions of the GTTF officers, said Thursday that he had not had a chance to read Hollander’s opinion. Davis has said he believes there will be many lawsuits against the city related to the gun unit’s unsanctioned actions.
Private attorneys for the individual officers named in the lawsuit — some of whom are still with the department, some of whom are retired, and some of whom are in federal prison — either declined to comment or did not respond to requests for comment on Thursday.
Both Burley and Matthews, who had pleaded guilty to charges in the crash, including manslaughter in Burley’s case, had their convictions vacated by a federal judge in December 2017, at the request of federal prosecutors.
On Thursday, their attorney Andrew Freeman praised Hollander’s decision, which he said preserved all of his clients’ substantive claims.
“We are pleased that Mr. Burley and Mr. Matthews are finally on the road to compensation for the egregious wrongs done to them by the Baltimore Police Department officers, supervisors and the department itself,” Freeman said. “For decades, the Baltimore Police Department and its supervisors condoned rampant misconduct by their plainclothes officers, which emboldened them to violate citizens rights — including by planting guns and drugs on innocent Baltimoreans.”
The case has not been put on the court schedule yet. First, the defendants will have an opportunity to file a full response to the claims against them.