City withholds part of settlement in police brutality lawsuit

Internet comments lead Baltimore officials to pull $31,500 from woman who settled police brutality suit.

It wasn't long after Ashley Overbey won approval for a $63,000 settlement from Baltimore's government that anonymous critics began their assault against her on the Internet. Commenting on news accounts of the settlement — which ended her lawsuit alleging police brutality — they accused the 27-year-old of initiating her arrest to get a big payout.

She responded, defending herself and recounting details of the incident — a move that led the city to withhold $31,500 from Overbey's payout this week.

City lawyers said Friday they were simply holding Overbey to terms of the settlement, which prohibits injured residents from making any public statement — or talking to the news media — about events that sparked their lawsuits. People who agree to those terms acknowledge that they could forfeit some of the payout.

But Overbey and her lawyer say city officials are being unfair.

Online comments "were so judgmental from such a small article." Overbey said Friday evening. "I was upset. I didn't consider it the media. No one identified themselves as a reporter. It was a blog site."

Overbey's attorney, Simone Mollock, added, "The comments were painful for her to read. She was defending herself online."

Such settlement terms drew criticism in a recent Baltimore Sun series about lawsuits alleging police brutality and other misconduct. Some officials said the terms have helped keep the scope of the problem from becoming widely known. The series also noted that when settlements are placed on the agenda at public meetings involving the mayor and other top officials, cases are described using excerpts from police reports, with allegations of brutality routinely omitted.

The Sun's investigation, published after city officials approved Overbey's settlement, found that residents have suffered broken bones and battered faces during arrests. The city has paid $5.7 million in court judgments and settlements in 102 civil suits since 2011, and nearly all of the people involved in incidents leading to those lawsuits were cleared of criminal charges. Some officers were involved in multiple lawsuits.

Overbey's lawsuit accused three officers of beating her after she reported a burglary in her home in April 2012.

According to documents presented Sept. 10 to the Board of Estimates by City Solicitor George Nilson, Overbey "became hostile" and got into a "verbal confrontation" with Officer Fred Hannah. He accused her of pushing him and attempted to arrest her.

Overbey alleged that Hannah pulled her hair and began hitting her, the documents state. When additional police officers arrived, Overbey and Hannah were struggling in the hallway. A second officer began struggling with Overbey, while a third shocked her with a Taser, the city said.

Overbey was charged with five counts of assault and resisting arrest, but city prosecutors dropped those charges.

When the board approved the settlement, Nilson said of the altercation: "Folks got emotional. There was lots of noise and lots of resistance. One citizen had to be Tased in order to calm down. We decided it made sense to settle the matter rather than throw it up in the air for a jury. We make these judgments all the time."

The memo did not mention other accusations in Overbey's lawsuit. She accused Hannah of barging into her apartment without announcing himself. When she questioned him, he "became overly aggressive, rude and disrespectful" to Overbey and her mother, Jenean Kelly.

Hannah then grabbed Overbey's "hair, twisted her arm behind her back, forced her into the hallway, began striking her about her face and body," the lawsuit states. Officer Martin Richardson then arrived and threw her to the ground before "violently and maliciously striking" Overbey. He pinned her under a stairwell and continued to punch her, the lawsuit says.

Moments later, Hannah started yelling at Kelly and eventually arrested her. He later pulled her by "the hair and banged her head, face and body into a transport van," the lawsuit says. Officer Grant Galing arrived and fired his Taser twice at Overbey.

Police have not allowed officers named in lawsuits to comment on the allegations.

When The Sun reported on Overbey's settlement, some online commenters harshly criticized her.

"I'm sorry for your experience, but pushing a Police Officer does not work," a commenter called Co.Owner wrote about Overbey. "No matter what your race is, you never touch a police officer; you do answer all questions; and assist when possible. I would rather be shot by a Taser, then a bullet. I can't wait until you need their help in the future. Enjoy the money!!"

MissDaisy wrote: "So, OK, I can call the cops, assault one of them, get tased and get paid! Sounds like a plan!"

Overbey, who doesn't have a criminal record, replied online that people should learn the facts before commenting. She described the incident, mirroring statements in her lawsuit.

"AND THIS WAS ALL AFTER I CALLED THEM FOR HELP AFTER MY HOME HAD BEEN BURGULARIZED WHILE I WAS AT WORK!! SO ANYONE WHO HAS ANYTHING TO SAY (NEGATIVITY) YOU CAN TAKE UR OPINION AND SHOVE IT!!" Overbey wrote.

She added: "I pay my taxes and support myself like everyone else but unlike a lot of other people I KNOW MY RIGHTS and I refused to let them get away with this AGAIN!!"

City lawyers said such statements violate terms of the agreement she signed to settle her lawsuit.

"Despite her voluntary agreement to the contrary, Ms. Overbey violated the express terms of her settlement agreement by making a number of disputed comments about the case," Deputy Solicitor David Ralph said in a statement. "As a result of her violation of the agreement, the City Law Department paid her the amount agreed upon by the parties in the event of a breach of the agreement."

He added: "The Law Department stands by its decision. In order for agreements to be worth anything at all, individuals must honor the obligations they freely decided to undertake."

The clause in the agreement says limitations on "public statements shall include a prohibition in discussing any facts or allegations ... with the news media" except to say the lawsuit has been settled.

Ralph said last month that in "99.9 percent of the cases" the settlement clause never becomes an issue. He also said many allegations are left out of the Board of Estimates memos because they are hotly contested. In such settlements, the city and the officers involved do not acknowledge any wrongdoing.

The police report said Overbey bit an officer, but Nilson did not mention that in last month's memo to the board.

"The evidence included a bite mark left by Ms. Overbey on the body of one of the officers," Ralph said in his statement.

Overbey said she became enraged when she read online comments at the end of the article.

The online post was later updated with comments from Mollock, describing Overbey as "beaten black and blue" by the officers.

Ronald L. Smith, Overbey's co-counsel and a retired police officer, said city officials should have taken the issue to court so a judge could decide whether Overbey violated the agreement. It would be costly for Overbey to file another lawsuit to try to get the money, he said.

"They had the power to do it," Smith said. "They hadn't released the check. It seems that it was a rush to judgment."

In requesting Overbey's $63,000 settlement, city lawyers didn't tell the Board of Estimates that the city also paid Kelly, Overbey's mother, $12,000 to settle her allegations against the officers. The board approves payments over $25,000, so it did not have to take action on the payment to Kelly.

The memo listed "Ashley Overbey et al," but made no mention of Kelly's payment. That raises questions about how much the city has paid outside the board to settle lawsuits for allegations such as false arrest and false imprisonment. Many of the lawsuits reviewed by The Sun listed multiple plaintiffs.

Overbey, who has three children, said the criminal charges have hurt her chances of getting a better job in the health care field. She is working to get them expunged.

Still, she isn't surprised the city kept the money.

"Regular people cannot afford to battle the city for two or three years in court," she said. "It's something Baltimore City would do. It's a ploy for them to get a quick $31,500 back."

mpuente@baltsun.com

twitter.com/MarkPuente

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