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Montgomery Co. pays far less than Baltimore in police misconduct settlements

Granted, Montgomery County and Baltimore City are very different places.

The Washington, D.C., suburb is richer and more educated than Baltimore. Its population, on the rise, is more than one and a half times that of Baltimore, which has seen its numbers decline census after census over the past half-century. And Montgomery County’s crime statistics pale in comparison to Baltimore’s, even as violent crime in Maryland’s biggest city has recently dropped to historic lows.

But when it comes to the cost of resolving lawsuits that allege police misconduct in the past few years, the two nearby jurisdictions seem to be worlds apart.

Based on figures provided by each jurisdiction’s top attorney, between January 2008 and March 2011, Baltimore paid about eight times as many claims and likewise paid out more than eight times as much than Montgomery County did.

While Baltimore’s figure for that period stands at $8.58 million, Montgomery County’s total outlay was just over $971,000, with the bulk of it attributable to two high-dollar settlements last year.

Aside from the factors mentioned above, County Attorney Marc Hansen suggested his attorneys deal with a different set of fact-finders than do city attorneys.

“Montgomery County juries tend to be more conservative; they just do,” he said.

In fact, almost all the county’s expenses came in the form of settlements. Of the 59 claims resolved between Jan. 1, 2008, and this month, four were plaintiffs’ judgments. Combined, they amounted to $6,500. The county settled 18 of the claims and obtained dismissals, summary judgment or defense verdicts in the rest, according to the information it supplied.

Baltimore’s report did not differentiate between judgments and settlements; nor does it detail the cases the city won on motions before trial that did not result in settlements.

There were several other notable distinctions in the level of detail between the city’s table, furnished two weeks ago by City Solicitor George A. Nilson, and the county report generated and provided to The Daily Record last week.

Part of the explanation is Montgomery County has a computer work management program, known just as “County Law,” according to Hansen’s chief of litigation, into which attorneys input detailed case information on a regular basis.

Patricia Via, the litigation chief, didn’t know who made the program, but said other jurisdictions, though maybe not in Maryland, use it.

“That’s how we got to it,” she said.

Via said the U.S. Department of Justice makes occasional requests of the Montgomery County Department of Police for such information, and she was handling one such request just last week.

“So it’s not anything unusual,” she said. “We need to be able to pull the information in a fairly reasonable period of time.”

While Baltimore’s law department took more than five months to create its report, the Montgomery County office was able to print its document within a day of the request for information.

Montgomery County’s report includes a description of the incident, as well, which is not contained in the city’s report.

The county report also includes a substantial number of car accidents involving police officers. Via said the vehicle cases, roughly a third of the total number of the claims, are the “nature of the beast.”

“You got to figure they’re on the road, those patrol officers, 24-7,” she said.

While many involved relatively minor property claims, the county’s biggest payout over the period came in a motor tort case. In December, the county agreed to pay $400,000 to the parents of a Clarksburg boy who was paralyzed when he ran into the street and was hit by a police cruiser driven by an off-duty officer. Officer Jason Cokinos also paid a $185 fine for speeding, while the child, Luis Jovel Jr., is still in rehabilitation, according to news reports about the case.

The only other six-figure settlement was in the case of a man who alleged he was wrongfully arrested and searched for a carjacking. In March 2010, the county paid $300,000 to Johnathan Demery to resolve the Washington, D.C., court case.

“We do have some payouts on excessive force, unreasonable searches and seizures — not many but some,” Hansen said.

Those two settlements helped push the total for calendar year 2010 to more than $750,000, more than three-fourths of the total in the 3½-year period.

They were also the only ones in the reporting period to reach the six-figure mark. Baltimore, on the other hand, paid at least a dozen claims of more than $100,000.

Like the city, Montgomery County did not include the cost of defending suits in the figures it supplied.

Via noted that the Montgomery County law department also defends the city of Rockville, but does not handle suits against the city of Gaithersburg, which has its own police department and is a member of the Local Government Insurance Trust.

Lawyers from Montgomery County and Baltimore alike believe the number of suits against officers is on the rise. And Via said Baltimore and its officers contend with different issues than the officers she trains and defends do.

“They’re well-trained. They’ve got a complaint system in place,” Via said of Montgomery County. “They do a good job, so I guess it results in good resolutions in these cases.”

One comment

  1. This doesn’t take into account the $3M verdict delivered in favor of William E. Wallace III and his daughter against Montgomery County Police Officer Patricia Poulos by a federal jury in Greenbelt last month, as reported in the Daily Record. Attorneys’ fees should be available to the attorneys for Wallace and his daughter under federal law. Montgomery County is indemnifying Officer Poulos, and it seems likely that there will be an appeal on her behalf.