A jury has awarded damages of $500,000 to a teenager who entered a police van near his home in West Baltimore and was dropped off hours later near Patapsco Valley State Park in Howard County without his shoes, cell phone or any way of getting home.
The civil trial in Baltimore City Circuit Court followed the city’s refusal to honor a $150,000 settlement its law department had reached with the family of Michael Johnson Jr., who claimed he was forced into the van by three police officers.
The Board of Estimates rejected the settlement last August, saying the officers were acting outside the scope of their authority.
“We still have a battle with the city,” said A. Dwight Pettit, who was co-counsel on the case tried by Allan B. Rabineau. “We will do whatever we have to do to enforce the judgment.”
All three officers are still on the force, Pettit said, even though two of them were convicted of misconduct in office over the incident.
The officers were represented in the civil suit by Michael Marshall and Troy Priest. Priest did not return a message left after the verdict, while an attorney at Marshall’s firm said they were not able to comment at this time.
Johnson was 15 when he entered the police van on May 4, 2009, in what the officers have maintained was a voluntary encounter; Johnson maintains he was threatened with extreme bodily harm. He has since graduated from high school and is living with his parents in the same West Baltimore community from which he was taken, Pettit said.
Pettit said the police officers were conducting drug surveillance when they forced one of Johnson’s acquaintances to get in the van. That teen was dropped off in East Baltimore, miles from his home.
They returned to West Baltimore and approached Johnson, who was 15 at the time, and threatened him with severe injury if he did not come with them. They broke his phone, took his socks and shoes and left him 11 miles over the Howard County line, Pettit said.
“It was either go walking down Route 40 or figure out how to get home,” Pettit said. Johnson came to a gas station and used the payphone to call 911, Pettit said.
The call was answered by Howard County police, one of whom testified for Johnson at the civil trial before Judge W. Michel Pierson, Pettit said.
Johnson and his parents filed suit in 2010. After several postponements, the trial began Jan. 17 and lasted five days. The jury — 5 women and 1 man, with a racial mix, Pettit said — deliberated about two hours before returning its verdict around 4 p.m. Friday.
The verdict includes $465,000 in compensatory damages and $35,000 in punitive damages, Pettit said.
The other youth did not take action in time to sue the city, Pettit said.
In the criminal cases, the officers were charged with kidnapping, a felony, and misconduct in office, a misdemeanor. Baltimore City State’s Attorney Gregg Bernstein, who prosecuted the case himself, obtained misdemeanor convictions against Officers Milton G. Smith III and Tyrone Francis in May 2011. Those convictions were affirmed on appeal last November. The third officer, Greg Hellen, was acquitted.
KATHRYN MCDONALD, ET AL. V. TYRONE S. FRANCIS, ET AL.
Baltimore City Circuit Court
W. Michel Pierson
Plaintiff’s verdict of $465,000 compensatory damages, $35,000 punitive
Suit filed: Nov. 4, 2011
Trial: Jan. 17-25, 2013
Verdict: Jan. 25, 2013
Allan B. Rabinesau and A. Dwight Pettit.
Michael Marshall and Troy Priest