A long-running lawsuit involving misconduct by Baltimore police is headed for a legal showdown, now that a bank has frozen nearly $300,000 in city funds that could be used to pay a court judgment.
On July 3, M&T Bank said it froze and will hold $281,000 from a city account to comply with the garnishment order, court records show. The bank also charged the city a $150 processing fee. A judge has set a hearing for Aug. 12, court records show.
At stake is an award against three officers who picked up two teens in West Baltimore at separate times in May 2009 and dropped them miles from home. Michael Johnson Jr., one of the teens involved, won a $500,000 judgment in a trial, but that amount was reduced to comply with a state law that caps damages in such cases.
Attorneys A. Dwight Pettit and Allan B. Rabineau recently filed court papers to garnish the money from the city. The move is rare; the city typically pays court judgments against officers, as part of its contract with the Fraternal Order of Police.
But in this case the city has refused; officials say the officers were acting outside the scope of their duties.
In legal filings, city lawyers contend there is no legal basis to freeze the funds because the city wasn't listed as a defendant in the lawsuit against the officers. The city has requested a hearing to release the money and is seeking $2,850 in attorney fees, Chief Solicitor William R. Phelan, Jr. wrote in a court papers.
In response, Pettit and Rabineau countered with a motion, arguing that state law allows payments to be collected from local governments.
At the time of the 2009 incidents, Officers Tyrone S. Francis, Gregory Hellen and Milton G. Smith III worked as members of the Violent Crimes Impact Section, which patrolled high-crime areas. They have since left the police department.
If the city does not pay, Pettit has vowed to seize the assets of the former officers.
Generally, the city pays court judgments and settlements related to allegations of misconduct. In fact, a Baltimore Sun investigation found that from 2011 to 2014, the city paid nearly $6 million in more than 100 civil lawsuits alleging brutality or other misconduct. In such settlements, neither the officer nor the city acknowledges wrongdoing.
The police union contract generally calls for the city to defend officers against litigation. A "Protection Against Liability" section in the contract states: "The city will provide indemnification to any member of the Unit who is made a defendant in litigation arising out of acts within the scope of his/her employment."
Union leaders have warned that officers might be fearful of doing their work if the city does not back them in the lawsuits.
Johnson's lawsuit said the officers forced him into an unmarked police van, hit him with a nightstick and threw his cellphone out the window before dropping him off at Patapsco Valley State Park in Howard County without his shoes and socks. He was 15 at the time.
The officers faced criminal charges that included kidnapping, false imprisonment, second-degree assault and misconduct in office. Robert F. Cherry, the union president at the time, said "the facts will show the officers were doing their jobs."
In February 2012, attorneys representing the officers, including City Solicitor George Nilson, agreed to settle the lawsuit for $150,000. Both sides signed the agreement, and a judge canceled a March trial date and closed the case.
Five months later, a city judge ordered the Board of Estimates to vote publicly on the matter after he learned city officials had killed the settlement during a closed-door meeting. At the time, Rawlings-Blake would not vote for the settlement and said the officers had acted outside the scope of their duties.
The civil case then went to trial. In January 2013, a jury awarded Johnson $500,000, and found that Smith and Francis acted with malice. The ruling was upheld on appeal.
Legal wrangling over the officers' criminal charges also lasted for years. A judge acquitted Hellen of all charges; Smith and Francis were acquitted of kidnapping, but convicted of misconduct, a misdemeanor.
A judge then downgraded the charges and granted Smith and Francis probation before judgment, which allowed them to wipe their records clean after completing the terms of probation.