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Jury deliberates in suit against Baltimore police officers

After a week of trial in Baltimore City Circuit Court, it is now up to a jury to decide whether four men who were frisked and detained for about an hour in a Westside bar while another patron was arrested were merely inconvenienced or are instead owed money damages.

Lawyers for the plaintiffs and the half-dozen defendant officers made their final pleas to the jury Tuesday afternoon, and the seven-member panel will begin deliberations Wednesday morning.

In their closing arguments, the attorneys offered wildly differing views of the severity of the December 2008 incident and the value of the case. But both urged the jury to review the surveillance videotape of the events and measure the footage against the testimony of the bar owners and patrons, on the one hand, and the police on the other.

Heightening the contrast, the four black plaintiffs sat on the left side of the downtown courtroom, closer to the jury box, and the six white officers sat on the right side.

Richard C.B. Woods, who represented the officers’ drug-dealer target in his criminal case and filed civil suit on behalf of the plaintiffs, said the officers from the violent crime impact division had probable cause to arrest Antonio Lee “and they should have just done it.”

“But no, they were concerned about the safety of a confidential informant,” Woods said, alluding to the participant in an earlier controlled drug buy from Lee whose role in the run-up to Lee’s eventual arrest was not fully disclosed in the police report. “The officers in this unit decided they had the power to lie on an official statement of probable cause.”

Woods claimed several of the officers assaulted and battered bar manager Eric Smith, liquor license holder Larry Griffin, and patrons Marcel Wade and Troy Smith by searching them without probable cause. Woods asked the jury to award each plaintiff $250,000.

“Let that verdict ring out,” said Woods, who opened his own firm this year, Kaminkow & Woods P.A.

But Michael L. Marshall, a private lawyer paid by the city to represent the officers, began his argument by saying, “Much of the plaintiffs’ case hinges upon exaggeration. Exaggeration after exaggeration.”

Marshall, of Schlachman, Belsky & Weiner P.A., pointed to Troy Smith’s claim that one of the officers knocked his phone out of his hand and the plaintiffs’ complaint that the officers pushed and grabbed them.

“Watch the video,” he said.

The reasons the officers gave for why they put hands on anyone in the bar besides Lee, then a convicted murderer on parole who was shot and killed in January, was a particular point of contention.

According to Woods, one officer said the plaintiffs’ putting their hands up when the officers entered the bar was suspicious, while another officer said that Troy Smith — no relation to Eric Smith — remained motionless, which was suspicious.

“I don’t know what they’d do with a double amputee but I bet they’d come up with something,” Woods said.

Marshall downplayed the issue.

“Different actions may mean different things to different detectives,” he said.

It remains to be seen what different versions of events — offered by the video and the police incident report — mean to different jurors.

In their report, the police noted they had been after Lee for drug-dealing for a while — at least since Oct. 28, 2008, when they orchestrated a controlled buy, according to Woods’ associate, Kate M. Bell. What was not included in the report, according to Bell, was that police asked the confidential informant to call off another controlled buy on Dec. 11, 2008, in order to follow Lee to his stash house.

According to the report, the officers that day entered what was then Smittie’s Bar and Lounge Inc. in the 1600 block of Warwick Avenue — Coppin State University has since purchased the property. Lee voluntarily spoke with them and gave them the key to his car, where cocaine was found, according to the police report. But the video, which is plaintiffs’ exhibit 1 for the jury, shows that the officers entered the bar, arrested Lee and kept everyone else from moving off their stools. The officers also searched a couple of the plaintiffs’ cars; they found no contraband.

The charges against Lee were dropped when the State’s Attorney’s office saw the video. The plaintiffs’ law firm used the discrepancy in the police report against its author, Wayne Jenkins, in an unrelated federal case.

Marshall said the encounter at Smittie’s was “casual” and noted that no plaintiffs were injured or claimed loss of business or wages. He said the plaintiffs tried to “capitalize on a relatively innocent situation” by doing a “press conference” with WBAL-TV reporter Jayne Miller in spring 2009.

“They’re doing it to try to drum up more out of this case than it’s worth, assuming its worth anything,” Marshall said.

Settlements and verdicts in civil litigation against the city police department have totaled more than $800,000 in 2011 and more than $7.25 million from mid-2007 through mid-2010.