Maryland’s highest court reinstated a $200,000 judgment against a Baltimore Police officer for excessive force after the officer, who is white, opened fire on a black man during a traffic stop five years ago.
Attorneys for the family of the late Jeffrey Blair took their case to the Maryland Court of Appeals late last year. Amid protests nationally over police brutality and the killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis, the judges issued their opinion Wednesday.
Blair’s widow, Tiauna, was watching the news of additional charges against three other Minneapolis officers when her lawyer called.
“I’m really speechless. I didn’t know, first of all, that we would even be able to win,” she said. “But after they charged the officers yesterday in connection with George Floyd’s death, somehow that gave me hope. ... It gives me hope that I believe our country is going in the right direction, and that the justice system does work. But yet, we still have a long way to go.”
Her attorney, Ben Rosenberg, said he believes the timing is a coincidence — not the result of the protest movement. Still, he said, such violence as seen against Jeffrey Blair in February 2015 is what’s bringing demonstrators into the streets today.
“This would not have happened to me,” said Rosenberg, who is white. “That cop would not have shot me if I got out of my car and did what Mr. Blair did. He might have whacked me with a baton. He might have hit me with some Mace. But he wouldn’t have shot me.”
David B. Austin, the police officer who shot Blair, remains on the force. In a dissenting opinion, three of seven appeals court judges noted that Blair charged directly at the officer.
“We are disappointed that four members of the Court of Appeals did not agree that the officer in this case acted appropriately. We embrace the dissenting opinion of the remaining three,” police spokeswoman Lindsey Eldridge wrote in an email. “Even as we express our disappointment, we will continue to review both opinions and, continue on the path of assuring that BPD and the City of Baltimore meets the intent and purpose and spirit of the Consent Decree, to which it is fully committed."
City and federal authorities entered into the consent decree three years ago to resolve patterns of unconstitutional policing in Baltimore.
The case traces back to an afternoon in February 2015 when Austin spotted a sedan driving on the wrong side of the road in West Baltimore. Behind the wheel was Blair, a 35-year-old husband and stepfather who worked in information technology at the downtown law firm of DLA Piper.
The next moments were recounted during a jury trial in Baltimore Circuit Court. Austin turned on his lights and siren and pursued Blair, who did not stop.
“Mr. Blair drove at a speed between 20 and 25 miles per hour, making several turns and running another red light, before pulling over,” the judges wrote in their majority opinion. “Although Mr. Blair failed to stop his vehicle as directed and briefly drove on the wrong side of the road, he did not force other drivers off the road, cause a collision, or otherwise place Officer Austin or pedestrians at risk.”
Blair pulled over in the 1000 block of Fremont Avenue. Austin testified that he saw Blair lean over the passenger seat before stepping out.
“Officer Austin advised Mr. Blair to return to his vehicle. Instead, Mr. Blair rapidly increased his pace toward Officer Austin, but there was no indication whether Mr. Blair was armed,” the judges wrote.
A surveillance camera — though somewhat obstructed — captured a portion of their encounter. While the dissenting opinion described Blair’s action as a “charge,” his family wrote in their lawsuit that he “jogged towards” the officer “with his hands in clear view and empty.”
Austin fired four times, striking Blair at least twice.
During trial, Austin testified that he believed Blair was armed. The officer radioed for backup and medics, but maintained his distance.
“Mr. Blair failed to remain on the ground after being shot; thus, when the responding law enforcement officers arrived on the scene, they subdued him by use of a taser,” the judges wrote.
Blair was shot in his chest and arm, hospitalized and later released. His public defender was aghast to see him at a bail review hearing.
“He was basically naked on the floor of central booking with an open chest wound,” said Harrison Greene, another attorney who has represented the family.
Blair was released to recover at home and await trial on charges of assault. In June 2015, four months after the traffic stop, he killed himself.
In their opinion, the judges wrote that Blair’s medical records showed a history of mental illness.
“Those records included Mr. Blair’s thoughts regarding the interaction between him and Officer Austin, including suicidal ideation and the hope that he would be shot by a police officer. The record does not reflect, however, that Mr. Blair communicated this intent to Officer Austin or that Officer Austin was otherwise cognizant of Mr. Blair’s intention,” the judges wrote.
Blair’s family sued the police department and Austin. During trial, Austin testified that he did not see Blair with a weapon, but he saw him reach for his pants pocket and suspected the man armed. The judges also made note of Blair’s size: about 6 feet and 230 to 250 pounds.
During trial, a law enforcement expert for the plaintiffs testified that a reasonable officer would have met an attack by an unarmed individual with a baton or Taser — not gunfire. The jury found Austin used excessive force.
The Court of Special Appeals reversed the jury’s finding and ruled Austin acted within reason based on its own review of the video. The Court of Appeals, however, upheld the jury’s finding and determined the lower appeals court overstepped its authority, and that it was up to jurors — not the judges — to decide whether Austin’s actions were justified.
State law at the time capped the judgment at $200,000, Rosenberg said.
Tiauna Blair said she’s relieved to see the lawsuit finally resolved. The ensuing years have brought national attention to the force police officers use against black men in America, and each case — from Freddie Gray to George Floyd — reopens old wounds.
“Each time someone dies at the hands, or is injured at the hands, of police officers," she said, “it does nothing for me but bring back those memories."