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Police settle suit claiming racially motivated stop

The Maryland Board of Public Works has approved a $55,000 settlement with a Philadelphia man who claimed state troopers stopped him three times in two months because he is black and then pursued trumped-up charges that cost him 20 days in jail after he filed a Public Information Act request for details of the traffic stops.

David K. Martin claimed his experiences on Interstate 95 in Cecil County were consistent with the Maryland State Police’s “long history” of stopping and searching people of color along the East Coast artery. Racial profiling was addressed in a 1995 legal settlement and consent decrees in 2003 and 2009; however, the NAACP and American Civil Liberties Union have been embroiled in an open-records case to determine if the state police are abiding by the agreement.

After an investigation, the Office of the Maryland Attorney General concluded the state troopers acted within the scope of their duties and without malice or gross negligence, according to papers filed with the Board of Public Works, which consists of Gov. Martin O’Malley, Comptroller Peter Franchot and Treasurer Nancy K. Kopp.

U.S. District Judge William D. Quarles Jr. in Baltimore had dismissed the troopers, Christopher Conner and Jeremiah Gussoni, as defendants in March 2012, saying they had qualified immunity as they had acted within their official capacities.

The state admitted no wrongdoing in agreeing to the settlement.

Seth A. Rosenthal, Martin’s attorney, said he hopes the settlement “will lead to further improvements” in the state police’s efforts to avoid racial profiling.

“The State Police have made progress, and Secretary [Marcus L.] Brown appears genuinely committed to rooting out the problem of racial profiling once and for all,” said Rosenthal, of Venable LLP in Washington. “But as this case reveals … the agency’s formal message about the importance of constitutional policing and the deleterious impact that racial profiling has on the public’s trust still does not appear to be resonating with all troopers.”

The attorney general’s office, through spokesman David Paulson, declined to comment on the settlement as the case has not been formally dismissed by the U.S. District Court in Baltimore.

In his lawsuit filed in April 5, 2011, Martin rejected a trooper’s stated explanation for one of the traffic stops.

“Contrary to his allegations … Conner did not stop Mr. Martin on Dec. 9, 2009, because Mr. Martin was speeding and did not search Mr. Martin’s car on Dec. 9, 2009, because he detected “the faint odor of marijuana,’” the 13-count, 30-page lawsuit stated. “Conner stopped, detained and searched Mr. Martin and his car on Dec. 9, 2009, because of Mr. Martin’s race or color.”

That stop, Martin’s third run-in with the troopers, occurred as he was driving to Baltimore from the courthouse in Cecil County, where a gun charge from the first stop had been dropped.

According to the suit, Martin was traveling to his fiancee’s family home near Baltimore on Oct. 12, 2009, when Gussoni pulled him over for, among other reasons, speeding and making an unsafe lane change.

After Conner arrived as backup, the troopers found a handgun in Martin’s waistband and arrested him.

Martin claims he legally purchased and registered the gun, and these searches were illegal, as evidenced by the prosecution’s decision not to proceed with the gun charges.

Martin was stopped again on Nov. 2, 2009, for the same reason, but was let go with a warning, according to the suit, which did not name a trooper.

After that, Martin bought a Smart Black Box to record a car’s speed, GPS coordinates and the view from the front windshield, the complaint stated.

The device was recording on Dec. 9, 2009, when Martin’s rental car with New York plates was stopped by Conner at nearly the same point along I-95.

Conner said Martin was speeding; Martin’s box said he wasn’t. Conner also claimed he smelled marijuana and called for backup to search the car, which turned up no contraband.

Martin received a warning and was let go.

Concerned he was being profiled, Martin sent the MSP a Public Information Act request in February 2010 seeking records related to the December stop.

On March 19, 2010, two weeks after the state police received another PIA request from Martin concerning the October stop, Gussoni submitted an application for statement of charges to a Cecil County commissioner.

The trooper sought to revive the previous gun charge and lodge a more serious charge of “transporting a regulated firearm for unlawful sale or trafficking,” according to the suit.

The basis for the latter charge, according to the suit, was that a suspected straw purchaser had once bought Martin’s gun.

The commissioner issued a warrant for Martin’s arrest.

Even though Martin had, with an attorney, tried to negotiate his surrender, according to the suit, Gussoni reported him as a fugitive to Pennsylvania law enforcement, leading to his arrest at his North Philadelphia home on March 24, 2010.

He was held on a $500,000 bond and charged as a fugitive in possession of a firearm, according to the suit.

He was released pending trial on April 12, 2010, acquitted on the Maryland charges on Aug. 13, 2010, and acquitted of the Pennsylvania charge on Jan. 19, 2011, the complaint stated.

Martin’s complaint sought declaratory and injunctive relief, as well as unspecified compensatory and punitive damages on counts ranging from constitutional violations to evidence fabrication and conspiracy.

DAVID K. MARTIN V. CHRISTOPHER CONNER ET AL.

Court:

U.S. District Court, Baltimore

Case No.:

1:11-cv-00881-WDQ

Outcome:

$55,000 Settlement

Dates:

Events: Oct. 12, Nov. 2 and Dec. 9, 2009

Suit filed: April 5, 2011

Settlement approved by Board of Public Works: July 3, 2013

Plaintiff’s Attorney:

Seth A. Rosenthal of Venable LLP in Washington.

Defendant’s Attorney:

Phillip M. Pickus of the Office of the Maryland Attorney General.

Counts:

Violations of federal and state constitutional rights.