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State’s highest court says Baltimore must pay for “misconduct” of police Gun Trace Task Force

Maryland’s highest court said in a unanimous ruling Friday that the city must cover two judgments arising from the Gun Trace Task Force police corruption scandal, rejecting arguments that the officers were acting so far outside the scope of their employment that the city should be let off the hook.

“Given the egregiousness of the conspiracy, the length of time of the conspiracy, the number of former members of the department’s Gun Trace Task Force who participated in the conspiracy, and the department’s acknowledgment that examples of members of the Gun Trace Task Force planting evidence were plentiful, it is reasonable to conclude that the Department should have known of the misconduct by former members of the Gun Trace Task Force,” Court of Appeals Judge Shirley W. Watts wrote for the court.

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The judges cautioned that they were not making a blanket ruling for all lawsuits brought against members of the Gun Trace Task Force. But the allegations in the two cases that were before the court are similar to many of the claims that have been filed, one reason that the city had sought to make them test cases.

“By holding that the officers acted within the scope of their employment,” Watts wrote, “we ensure not only that [the two plaintiffs] have a remedy, but also that the ultimate responsibility for the officers’ misconduct rests with the governmental entities that employed and supervised them — namely, the city and the [police] department.”

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Mandy Milliman, the attorney for one of the plaintiffs, said the opinion was “powerful” and thorough.

“The city really hung its hat on the fact that the officers’ conduct was egregious and illegal, and a departure from what they considered to be legitimate police actions, and the court almost turned that against them,” Milliman said. “They found, yeah, this conduct really was egregious and outrageous, but it was going on for years, and the city should’ve known this was happening. ... It’s the city who should bear responsibility for the results.”

The city had said it wanted a global ruling, not only to protect taxpayers but also to cut down on years of legal wrangling that would incur additional costs.

City Solicitor Dana Moore said the city plans to fight the remaining cases.

“Every case will rise and fall on its own merits, and we will assert every defense available to our clients,” Moore said. “It’s going to be a more complicated fight, because we’ve got to do it case by case.”

The city is facing dozens of claims, most of them filed in federal court, that it failed to supervise members of the Gun Trace Task Force, who were convicted of federal racketeering charges for robbing citizens, falsifying probable cause and lying on official documents, and in some cases taking drugs. Some officers also have admitted to planting evidence.

The convicted officers received sentences of between seven and 25 years in federal prison.

The city entered into settlements of $32,000 each with Ivan Potts and William James, who alleged that the officers planted guns on them. In settling the cases, the city stipulated that the facts of the cases were true while arguing that the city should not have to pay the settlement amount.

The officers themselves have denied planting guns, even those who admitted to years of robberies and lying in police reports. In a letter from prison sent earlier this year, convicted GTTF Sgt. Wayne Jenkins touted the dismissal of one lawsuit in which a man’s claim that a gun was planted by the officers was refuted by body camera footage.

Jenkins, who pleaded guilty to years of robberies and selling drugs, said he “never planted drugs, firearms or stole money.”

The court’s ruling drew a distinction between the cases’ allegations of gun planting during an arrest and the allegations in some other lawsuits which involve money and drugs being taken. But the judges did not make clear whether that difference could change the city’s liability.

The judges said the officers’ misconduct in the cases of Potts and James “was incidental to actions that the department authorized, such as making arrests" and not done to “serve their own interests." The justice said that is one of the factors for determining if someone acted outside the scope of their employment.

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Potts filed a lawsuit against the officers prior to the sweeping federal indictments against members of the GTTF; he has been indicted himself since in a pending gang conspiracy case brought by the Drug Enforcement Administration.

James, meanwhile, was fatally shot last April, before the case was settled; the case has proceeded through his estate.

Milliman said James’ mother sobbed upon hearing news of the ruling.

“She felt her son was vindicated after everything she had been through, and was wishing he was here to celebrate,” Milliman said.

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