A Baltimore jury has awarded just $1 to one of four city men who were frisked and detained for about an hour in a Westside bar while a half-dozen police arrested another patron on charges that were dropped later.
The six jurors — three men, three women, three black and three white — decided Detective Wayne Jenkins violated Troy Smith’s constitutional rights that December 2008 evening but found for the officers on all other counts in Baltimore City Circuit Court.
Speaking outside the courtroom after Wednesday’s verdict, the jury foreman said the plaintiffs were “collateral damage” as police went about their normal business.
“We just felt like there was not really enough evidence to convict any of the defendants,” said James Morrison, a high school science teacher. “Basically, these guys were located at a site where there was … a drug bust going on.”
Smith said the jurors would feel differently if they had been in his shoes. Instead of punishing the officers, Smith said, the jury gave them “free rein to do whatever they want now.”
“What kind of justice is that?” asked Smith, 46. “None.”
He called the nominal damages award “an insult.”
Smith said money was not an issue for him and noted his salary at Baltimore Gas & Electric Co. in disputing the defense contention that the plaintiffs sought a windfall. “My issue was the police doing what they did.”
Plaintiff attorney Richard C.B. Woods, of the recently formed firm of Kaminkow & Woods P.A., had asked the jury to award $250,000 to each plaintiff. Such a verdict would “ring out,” Woods said during closing argument.
The officers did not react as the verdicts were read and declined to comment afterward. Their attorney, Michael L. Marshall, said the result “speaks for itself.”
Marshall is a member of Schlachman, Belsky & Weiner P.A., which has a police-defense contract with the city. He referred further questions to the city.
“I would call that a defense verdict,” City Solicitor George A. Nilson said when informed of the $1 award. “I cannot think of any other two words that are more appropriate. And it illustrates that we were wise not to settle it.”
The plaintiffs’ experience “happens sometimes,” Nilson said.
“If we lose an hour out of our lives, that’s our contribution to better public safety in the city, and we shouldn’t be filing lawsuits when that happens to us,” he said.
The plaintiffs — bar manager Eric Smith, liquor license holder Larry Griffin, and neighborhood friends Marcel Wade and Troy Smith (no relation to Eric Smith) — claimed they had been assaulted, battered and not permitted to move while police searched the bar and their cars, and that their constitutional rights had been violated. Troy Smith also was searched during the raid and prevented from making a cellphone call.
They sued the Baltimore City Police Department and members of its Violent Crime Impact Division a year after the incident.
The police department was dismissed from the action last summer, but the case against Det. Sgt. William Knoerlein and detectives Jenkins, William Gladstone, Ivo Louvado, Paul Geare and Victor Rivera proceeded to trial before Judge Emanuel Brown last week.
In addition to testimony from the parties, the jury saw surveillance videotape from inside the now-defunct Smittie’s Bar and Lounge on Warwick Avenue, which showed the arrest of Antonio Lee.
Lee, a convicted murderer who was then on parole, was the officers’ longtime target. They found $881 on him and two baggies of cocaine in his car, according to a statement of probable cause to arrest filed after the incident.
But that statement, written by Jenkins, did not mention that a confidential informant had arranged, then called off, a controlled drug buy from Lee earlier that day; nor did it completely square with the video footage.
When prosecutors watched the video, they dropped all charges against Lee because his constitutional rights had been violated, according to the plaintiffs’ lawyers. (Lee, whom Woods defended after the drug arrest, was killed in a drive-by shooting in East Baltimore in January.)
But the evidence was not enough to convince the jury in the civil case to find for the plaintiffs, with the exception of Troy Smith.
Another attorney for the plaintiffs, Kate M. Bell, said after the verdict that regardless of the officers’ “lofty” goal, they had lied, violated her clients’ rights and “now they’ve gotten away with it.” She called the police conduct in the case an example of a disturbing pattern of behavior.
“No wonder nobody wants to cooperate with the police anymore,” Bell said.
Settlements and verdicts in lawsuits brought by civilians against the police department have cost the city more than $800,000 so far in 2011 and more than $7.25 million from mid-2007 through mid-2010.