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Court of Special Appeals finds ex-cop, not Baltimore Police Department, liable for $166,000 judgment over vendetta search

The Maryland Court of Special Appeals has reversed a lower court ruling, finding the Baltimore Police Department isn’t on the hook to pay a $166,000 judgment against an ex-cop who lied to justify raiding a house in Canton.

The opinion released Thursday marks a win for City Hall attorneys as they seek to distance the department from officers sued over their crimes and misconduct. The scandal of the corrupt Gun Trace Task Force has given rise to a wave of lawsuits against the rogue officers and department.

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Still, victims of police misconduct are left to overcome the legal protections that can shield the city from liability even if officers are found guilty of criminal conduct.

At issue for the Court of Special Appeals was whether or not Officer Adam Lewellen acted “within the scope of his employment” when he manufactured a pretext to search the Canton home of a man who had dated his ex-girlfriend.

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Lewellen resigned from the force and pleaded guilty to perjury in 2014. He was sentenced to six months of home detention.

According to appeals court opinion, Lewellen’s ex-girlfriend was dating David Esteppe, but he broke up with her. She “threatened Mr. Esteppe to the effect that she had ‘cop friends’ and that he was ’going down,’” the judges wrote.

Lewellen applied for a warrant to search Esteppe’s home on the false pretext the man sold drugs. To justify this, Lewellen wrote that he arranged an undercover drug buy in which Esteppe sold drugs to his confidential informant. The court issued the warrant and Lewellen and other officers raided Esteppe’s home, finding not drugs but a hunting rifle and shotgun.

Esteppe had been convicted of second-degree assault in 2008 and prohibited from possessing the rifle or shotgun under a new state law. He was arrested and charged, but his case was dropped.

Meanwhile, the internal affairs investigators interviewed the confidential informant who denied ever buying the drugs. The investigators charged Lewellen with perjury for lying on his application for the search warrant.

Esteppe sued him, the police department and city, alleging assault, battery, negligence, false arrest and malicious prosecution. A Baltimore Circuit Court judge dismissed the claims against everyone but Lewellen. The judge awarded Esteppe $166,000 in damages.

When Esteppe sent a letter asking city attorneys to pay the judgment, they refused. They argued the city had been dismissed from the case and Lewellen wasn’t acting within his official duties as a police officer, which they called “scope of employment.” The court, however, decided Lewellen was acting “clearly within his scope of employment.”

Attorneys for the department appealed the decision.

In the opinion Thursday, the Court of Special Appeals decided that Esteppe has to prove Lewellen was acting within his scope of employment — and he hasn’t yet met that burden. In fact, the judge wrote, the only argument presented for Lewellen’s motive was that he wanted to curry favor with his ex-girlfriend.

The decision means Esteppe would be left to collect the money from the officer himself. Except, the matter isn’t settled.

Esteppe may return to the Circuit Court and make further argument to meet his burden of proving the officer was acting within the scope of his work. Or he may appeal up to the state’s highest court.

Baltimore Solicitor Dana Moore did not return a message Friday afternoon. Esteppe’s attorney, Byron Warnken Jr., said they weren’t finished.

“We appreciate the Court of Special Appeals clarifying the procedure,” he said, “and we look forward to further litigation in this matter against the city.”

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