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Police officers acted with malice in picking up teen

The Court of Special Appeals has affirmed that police officers acted with malice in picking up a teenager near his home in West Baltimore and dropping him off hours later near Patapsco Valley State Park in Howard County without his shoes, cell phone or any way of getting home.

However, the appellate court reduced the amounts awarded to Michael Brian Johnson Jr. and his mother against two of the three officers involved, finding the jury had improperly awarded him damages for the same injuries under both tort law and constitutional law.

The appellate court rejected a second claim by the officers that the amount should be subject to the cap under the Local Government Tort Claims Act.

Since the jury found the officers acted with actual malice, they are not shielded by immunity and they, not the government, are fully liable for all damages awarded, the Court of Special Appeals held in the reported opinion issued Monday afternoon.

A Baltimore City Circuit Court jury awarded Johnson about $500,000 after the city refused to honor a $150,000 settlement its law department had reached with the family, who claimed he was forced into the van by three police officers.

The trial judge later reduced the amount to $300,000 total. The Court of Special Appeals reduced it further on Monday, to about $247,000.

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.

Johnson and his parents filed suit in 2010. The Board of Estimates rejected the settlement in August 2012, saying the officers were acting outside the scope of their authority.

After several postponements, the trial began in January 2013 and lasted five days.

The officers were also charged criminally 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 in November 2012. The third officer, Greg Hellen, was acquitted.

Under the Court of Special Appeals’ decision, Hellen remains liable for $32,000 in compensatory damages. Smith’s liability was reduced from $136,000 to $110,000. Francis’ liability was reduced from $132,000 to $105,000.

The case is Francis et al. v. Johnson, CSA No. 673, Sept. Term, 2013.