Two men who served federal prison time after Baltimore police planted drugs on them to justify a fatal high-speed chase in 2010 filed a lawsuit Wednesday seeking more than $40 million in damages, according to their attorneys.
Umar Burley and Brent Mathews, who are suing the Baltimore Police Department and the State of Maryland, allege that police “knew or should have known” that the department’s elite units engaged in illegal activity.
Burley and Matthews were in a vehicle in April 2010 when they say masked officers suddenly surrounded their car, causing them to believe they were being attacked. Burley sped away and crashed into another vehicle at an intersection, killing 86-year-old Elbert Davis. Drugs were then planted in Burley’s vehicle.
The planting was not revealed until last fall, as part of the continuing investigation into eight former members of the Baltimore Police Gun Trace Task Force that revealed widespread misconduct. Federal authorities uncovered several robberies committed by the officers using the authority of their badges, which were covered up by officers falsifying paperwork and lying in court. The officers were also stealing overtime, and cooperating defendants outlined routine unconstitutional policing practices.
Six of the officers pleaded guilty in federal court to a range of crimes. Two others were convicted at trial this year.
Burley was serving time for manslaughter and federal drug convictions before he was released from prison in August. Matthews had already served his term of nearly four years. Their convictions were vacated in December by a federal judge at the request of federal prosecutors.
“The fact still remains, however, that two innocent men were wrongfully incarcerated ‘for far too long’ as a result of the BPD’s failings as described herein,” they say in the lawsuit, filed by the law firm of Silverman Thompson Slutkin and White.
They named as a defendant former Gun Trace Task Force Sgt. Wayne Jenkins, who was sentenced this month to 25 years in prison. They also named three officers who have not been criminally charged with wrongdoing: Sgt. Ryan Guinn, retired Sgt. Keith Gladstone and the estate of slain homicide detective Sean Suiter, who was killed the day before he was set to testify before a grand jury about the incident.
Jenkins, Suiter and Guinn have been identified as being involved in the attempted stop, pursuit and arrests. The plaintiffs claim that Gladstone was the officer who brought drugs to be planted in Burley’s car.
Gladstone could not be reached for comment Wednesday.
Gladstone retired from the department in December 2012, and rejoined the department a year later. He retired again on May 1, 2017.
Federal prosecutors said in an indictment against Jenkins that Jenkins told Guinn, identified in court papers as “Officer #2,” to call an unnamed sergeant who was not at the scene “because he had ‘the stuff,’ … or words to that effect.”
Jenkins later told Guinn that “the stuff” was now in Burley’s car, and that Suiter was duped into unwittingly discovering it, prosecutors said in the indictment.
Jenkins has sought to distance himself from planting the drugs. But at his sentencing last week, he tearfully acknowledged that he knew someone else had done it and didn’t speak up.
“From the bottom of my heart, I wish I could take that day back and not have stopped that vehicle,” Jenkins said. “I wish I had come clean when I found out the drugs were planted.”
Jenkins’ attorney, Steve Levin, declined to comment on the lawsuit, but said his client “has been honest about his participation in the matter, and I anticipate he’ll continue to be honest and open.”
Guinn remains with the department. He was assigned to the training academy earlier this year. He was accused during the trial of the Gun Trace Task Force officers of tipping off officers to the pending federal investigation.
Former Commissioner Kevin Davis said in an interview before he was fired in January that he had spoken with the FBI about Guinn and was “absolutely confident that there are no administrative sanctions to pursue against” him.
Guinn could not be reached for comment Wednesday.
City Solicitor Andre M. Davis said the city expects “a significant number of lawsuits of this type.”
“In accordance with our contractual obligations and the legal requirements imposed by state law, we will provide attorneys to defend the officers against the claims that have been asserted,” Davis said in a statement. “We will also provide an attorney to defend the Estate of Detective Suiter.”
Davis said the city does not intend to pay any judgments that might be entered against the officers who have been convicted of conspiracy and racketeering in federal court.
“This decision is based on our determination that the officers were not acting within the scope of their employment as police officers but were acting, instead, in pursuit of their own interests and not in pursuit of the mission of the Baltimore City Police Department.”
The plaintiffs trace misconduct allegations against city police plainclothes units to the 2006 flex squad controversy, after which the Special Enforcement Team units were disbanded. They also note the federal indictments of Baltimore Police Officers William King and Antonio Murray, who were together sentenced to more than 400 years after being convicted of shaking down drug dealers in 2005. And they cite the findings of the consent decree reform agreement with the Justice Department.
“BPD policymakers, aware of specific instances of police misconduct acutely similar to that at issue here since at least 2006 and armed with actual knowledge of GTTF officers’ misconduct both before and after the events at issue here took place, failed to adequately supervise and/or discipline their officers, thus allowing for the unconstitutional conduct described herein to occur,” they wrote.
Burley and Matthews both pleaded guilty to the charges they faced at the time.
“There was no real choice to make,” they wrote. “State and federal prosecutors threatened to seek the harshest punishments available against the plaintiffs if they did not enter ‘universal’ guilty pleas.”
Burley was on his way to a sentencing hearing for the killer of one of his cousins when the arrest occurred, his lawyers say. He was unable to attend that hearing and provide support to his family. As a result of his incarceration he missed the birth of his grandchildren.
One of his daughters was 7 years old when he was arrested, and is now graduating from high school.
Baltimore Sun reporter Ian Duncan contributed to this article.