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Ex-Flex Squad officers’ suit dismissed

Four former members of the disbanded Southwestern District Flex Squad have lost their $40 million federal lawsuit alleging that police department leaders violated their constitutional and civil rights by suspending them from active duty.

The officers also alleged that internal police investigators violated their privacy by sharing information with the media about the investigation and their suspension, which came after a woman claimed she was raped by another officer in the squad room.

Judge J. Frederick Motz dismissed the suit last week in U.S. District Court in Baltimore.

The plaintiffs had no constitutional right to be placed on active duty, Motz ruled; also, their privacy could not have been invaded by the release of truthful information related to their suspensions.

The Baltimore Police Department had only a brief reaction to Motz’ decision.

“We respect the decision of the courts,” spokesman Anthony J. Guglielmi said Tuesday.

The plaintiffs’ attorney, Neal M. Janey Sr., declined to comment. Janey, a solo practitioner in Baltimore, was formerly the city solicitor.

The event that gave rise to the suspensions and litigation occurred Dec. 28, 2005, when a woman accused Flex Squad Officer Jemini Jones of having raped her in the squad’s offices. (Jones was not a party to the federal lawsuit.)

The department’s Internal Investigations Division searched the offices that day and the next, leading to the interrogation of unit officers, who had waived their right to counsel. The rape allegation also spurred the department to disband the Southwestern District Flex Squad — a drug-fighting, plainclothes-wearing unit — in January 2006.

Officers Steven Hatley and Brian Shaffer were each indicted on Jan. 5, 2006, on one count of first-degree rape and misconduct in office.

Jones was tried first. On Jan. 24, 2007, a jury acquitted him of rape. Two days later, city prosecutors dropped the charges against Hatley and Shaffer.

But in February 2008, the department filed disciplinary charges against Hatley and Shaffer accusing them of aiding and abetting Jones in the 2005 sexual assault.

They and two other Flex Squad members — Mohamed Ali II and Valentine Nagovich Jr. — were also charged administratively with having detained two people in 2005 on suspected drug offenses and releasing them without issuing police-citizen contact receipts or filing an incident report with their supervisor.

The four also were accused of confiscating contraband from arrestees and detainees in 2005 without submitting the items to the evidence control section.

Under terms of their suspension, the officers were assigned to clerical duties not requiring police powers, but without any reduction in pay.

Hatley, Shaffer, Ali and Nagovich filed suit in Baltimore City Circuit Court in March 2009, seeking $5 million each in compensatory damages and $5 million each in punitive damages. The 11 named defendants included Police Commissioner Frederick H. Bealefeld III and former Commissioner Leonard Hamm; Karen Hornig, then-chief legal counsel to the department; then-spokesman Matt Jablow; and members of the Internal Investigations Division.

In addition to their due process claim based on their assignment to desk duty, the plaintiffs argued that the disciplinary proceeding was brought more than a year after their alleged offenses in violation of the Maryland Law Enforcement Officer’s Bill of Rights. They also claimed the defendants invaded their privacy by giving the media details from the search warrant application and confidential information related to the administrative proceedings.

Mark H. Grimes, chief legal counsel to the police department, successfully requested that the case be moved to federal court. He then asked Motz to dismiss the case.

On Thursday, Motz agreed.

The judge dismissed the LEOBR claim because that law does not give the officers a private cause of action. He found the due-process claim must fail because the officers had not lost a “constitutionally protected property interest” when they were suspended from active duty and reassigned without any loss in pay.

“[T]he constitutional protected property interest in employment does not extend to the right to possess and retain a particular job or to perform particular services,” Motz said.

Finally, he ruled that the release of information regarding the search or the disciplinary proceedings, if true, would not constitute an invasion of the plaintiffs’ privacy or place them in a false light.

“The investigations of the Flex Squad offices were lawfully conducted after allegations of wrongdoing and therefore do not amount to an intrusion that would be highly offensive to a reasonable person,” Motz wrote.

“While plaintiffs include numerous excerpts from the Baltimore Sun and WBALTV.com in the complaint, they fail to point out exact passages that contain false information. The excerpts appear to state facts that are objectively true,” Motz added. “Publication of true, but confidential, information does not place plaintiffs in a false light.”