Please ensure Javascript is enabled for purposes of website accessibility

Mass arrests during Baltimore unrest clogged justice system, led to lawsuits

Police watch rioters on April 27, 2015 at an intersection in the Penn-North neighborhood. (File)

Police watch rioters on April 27, 2015 at an intersection in the Penn-North neighborhood. (File)

Mass arrests during the rioting and unrest in Baltimore following the death of Freddie Gray last year overwhelmed an already struggling system, leading to cases being dropped and lawsuits alleging police misconduct during the chaotic week.

The Office of the Public Defender handled the bulk of these arrests, which involved defendants who were released without charges and those who were accused of rioting, assaulting law enforcement, and violating the mayor’s curfew order.

The OPD picked up 150 new cases for bail review out of the unrest and filed more than 80 habeas corpus petitions for individuals being held without charges, according to Natalie Finegar, deputy district public defender for Baltimore city.

Police “were essentially sending wagons out, scooping people up and my own personal opinion is in many cases they didn’t have probable cause at all,” Finegar said. “It did become a mechanism to kind of quiet things down.”

A man poses in front of police during a riot April 27, 2015 at an intersection in the  Penn-North neighborhood in Baltimore.

A man poses in front of police during a riot April 27, 2015 at an intersection in the Penn-North neighborhood in Baltimore.

Between April 25 and May 3 of last year, 27 people were charged with the common law “riot” offense, which does not carry a statutory penalty making violators theoretically subject to up to life in prison, according to the Maryland Judiciary. Of those cases, prosecutors ultimate dropped 19 of them.

“There were a lot of cases that were, for lack of a better word, a waste of everyone’s time and money,” Finegar said.

The Baltimore City State’s Attorney’s Office did not respond to multiple requests for comment about its efforts following the unrest.

A group of individuals who allege they were improperly arrested and assaulted by police officers during the protests filed suit last week in Baltimore City Circuit Court.

“We just thought it was outrageous these people got arrested,” said William H. “Billy” Murphy Jr., a lawyer for the plaintiffs.

Murphy, of Murphy, Falcon & Murphy in Baltimore, also represented Gray’s family, which reached a $6.4 million settlement with the city in September.

Confusion and chaos

After the city’s district court was closed last April 28, the system was flooded with arrestees needing bail reviews, according to Finegar. The OPD received word that many people being detained did not have charging documents and were not being presented for formal charging promptly.

“We kept trying to send lawyers into the jail to interview people to get ready for bail review the next day,” she said.

Charging documents that were filed contained vague language stating the person was present when something unlawful occurred without a specific allegation against the arrestee, she said.

By the time many of these individuals got to court, it became clear officers would not be able to identify them definitively as a lawbreaker.

“We had officers who came in who were the arresting officers who said, ‘I don’t know. I was told to take these people to Central Booking and then this charging document was created,’” Finegar said.

Murphy said at least 150 people have come to him in the last year alleging some kind of mistreatment by police during the unrest.

“One of the reasons that we’re just now bringing the suit it we tried to take our time sorting through the various cases that we got,” he said. “We’re looking for the cases that were more aggravated [with] important legal rights at stake.”

The six plaintiffs in the lawsuit filed last week all claim they were assaulted by Baltimore police. Five of them faced charges afterward that were later dropped.

Larry Lomax, a 24-year-old man who joined a protest near North and Pennsylvania avenues on May 2, was rushed by police and sprayed in the face with a canister of pepper spray, according to the complaint. He was charged with assault, riot, disorderly conduct and a curfew violation. He was held until May 29 when a fellow activist posted his bail.

“Larry Lomax was peaceful in exercising his right to free speech when the officers responded with force,” Murphy said. “That pepper spray was just excessive.”

Finegar said trying to quell violence in the city by making arrests without probable cause was not the best way to deal with protesters.

“These were people who were upset about perceived police brutality and unfairness,” she said. “The end result was people continued to be upset with the police and brutality and unfairness.”

No punishment, no crime

To Finegar’s knowledge, no one charged with violating the curfew imposed by Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake was found guilty because defense attorneys pointed out that the order did not include a penalty associated with breaking it.

Members of the OPD were working on the motion to dismiss curfew charges while people were still being processed through Central Booking and argued in the dozens of habeas corpus petitions filed that week that violating the order was not a crime.

“Without a penalty, it’s not a crime,” Finegar said. “There’s clear case law on that.”

A spokeswoman for the Maryland Judiciary said they have no way to pull statistics for curfew violation charges because the hastily-created offense did not receive a charging code enabling the court system to track it.

Baltimore attorney Dominic Iamale represented one man rounded up by police May 1 at City Hall, where marchers had congregated the day charges were announced for the six officers implicated in Gray’s death.

Andrew W. Schmidt was charged with violating the curfew along with assaulting a police officer and disorderly conduct. Iamele said he borrowed from the motion to dismiss drafted by Finegar and the OPD to lobby for dismissal of the curfew charge.

“Citizens who have to adhere to the law have to know what the possible punishment is so that they can conform their behavior to the law,” said Iamele, of Iamele & Iamele.

A jury acquitted Schmidt of the remaining charges at a trial, according to Iamele.

Finegar said public defenders were glad to share their research and information with the private attorneys handling some of the cases stemming from the unrest, though most curfew violations never made it to trial.

“I think the majority of them, they never pursued the charge,” she said.