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Jury awards $170K in police beating case

Richard Desser, Salahuneen Abdul Aziz, and Bryan Levitt

A Baltimore jury has awarded $170,000 to a city man who claimed two police officers arrested him in September 2009 without cause and then punched him several times in the face while he was lying on his back in handcuffs.

The verdict came Wednesday evening after about an hour of deliberation at the end of a two-day trial in Baltimore City Circuit Court and represents the latest high-dollar result in a case alleging misconduct by city police.

The jurors decided Officers Marvin Gross and Robert Stokes falsely arrested and imprisoned Salahudeen Abdulaziz and violated his constitutional rights, which amounted to $60,000 in damages for each policeman. They also found Gross liable for battery, resulting in an additional $50,000 in damages. According to one of his attorneys, Abdulaziz, who sometimes works as a mechanic, did not seek economic damages.

The jury did not award punitive damages, however, which plaintiff attorney Bryan A. Levitt called “surprising.”

“How do they not find malice out of that?” asked Levitt, a Towson solo. “I could not really fathom how they blew it on the punitive damages, but it’s a jury and juries do what juries do.”

City Solicitor George A. Nilson said he believes “there were a couple of rulings, and one in particular, that are quite puzzling and appear to be, at first blush, incorrect.”

“My understanding was one or both of the officers sought to testify about the basis for arresting the plaintiff and taking him into custody and cuffing him, and were not permitted to do that,” said Nilson, whose office contracts out to private attorneys a portion of its police defense work, including the Abdulaziz case. “I’m told that the judge said that’s essentially opinion testimony.”

“If the transcript bears out what I’ve heard so far, you can be pretty confident there will be post-trial motions filed,” Nilson said.

Troy Priest, who represented the officers at trial, did not return a phone message Thursday.

‘Miles apart’

The verdict is the second of more than $100,000 against the police in three weeks and comes a week after a $200,000 settlement in a police shooting case. Another such case is scheduled to begin in the city circuit court on Monday.

Police settlements totaled $7.25 million between mid-2007 and mid-2010, according to the city law department, and there have been several pricey settlements since last summer, including $195,000 worth in one Board of Estimates meeting in late December.

Asked why the city chose to take the Abdulaziz case to trial, Nilson, the city’s top lawyer, said “because the parties were miles apart” in terms of settlement figures.

Levitt said the city’s final offer before trial was $42,500 and that his final demand was $165,000.

The trial opened with testimony from two people who live in the Northwest Baltimore neighborhood and witnessed the interaction between the officers and Abdulaziz on the afternoon of Sept. 15, 2009. Abdulaziz, a solidly-built 25-year-old, took the stand.

Abdulaziz testified he had left his aunt’s house on North Carey Street to get a snack at a nearby convenient store and was walking back through an alley when the officers, who were driving by, told him to stop and put his hands up. Both he and a man who had emerged from the alley just behind him were arrested.

According to Levitt and co-counsel Richard B. Desser, the officers recounted different versions of events in the charging documents, in their pretrial discovery and in testimony at trial Wednesday.

“The testimony didn’t appear to be credible with all of the varying versions,” Desser said.

Gross, 38, has been on the force for almost five years. Stokes, 46, joined the department in 1998.

The officers said they saw the other man, Camonta West, drop a vial or gel cap and that they noticed Abdulaziz fidgeting with his hands while he was sitting in the squad car, according to the plaintiffs’ attorneys.

Abdulaziz said he simply needed help adjusting his wrist watch, but one of the officers took him out of the car and tried to tackle him to the ground. He stiffened up and the other officer helped bring him down, Abdulaziz testified, as he and Levitt acted it out for the jury.

Gross “started hitting my face with a closed fist,” Abdulaziz testified. “It was a lot of blows to my face. I say ’round about six.”

He said Stokes also punched him and had his knee in Abdulaziz’s groin.

The officers said they found glassine bags near where Abdulaziz fell, Desser said, but his client testified he had no drugs on him.

Charges dropped

Abdulaziz, who received treatment that day at Bon Secours Hospital, was charged with second-degree assault, drug possession, resisting arrest and disorderly conduct. West was charged with drug possession.

All charges against both men were eventually dropped.

Abdulaziz “goes to the store to get a bag of potato chips and look what happens,” Levitt said Thursday. “It’s storm trooper tactics for no reason.”

Abdulaziz has been charged with drug possession three other times, including in November, but those charges also were dropped.

He pleaded guilty to being a minor in possession of a gun or ammunition in May 2005 and was sentenced to two years in prison, suspended to time served.

As Levitt showed the jury photos of Abdulaziz’s swollen face, the plaintiff testified he could not see out of his left eye for almost a month.

“I’m terrified of the police,” he testified. “I’m afraid something like this might happen again.”

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