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Dozens of Baltimore businesses sue over response to 2015 riots

The burnt out DTLR store on Pennsylvania Avenue in Northwest Baltimore the day after the riots. (The Daily Record / Maximilian Franz)

A burnt-out store on Pennsylvania Avenue in northwest Baltimore after the April 2015 riots. (The Daily Record / Maximilian Franz)

A group of Baltimore businesses that sustained damage during the 2015 riots following the death of Freddie Gray is suing the city, alleging officials failed to suppress the riots.

The nearly 700-page complaint was filed in Baltimore City Circuit Court in March but only recently removed to U.S. District Court at the request of the defendants. The plaintiffs, which include dozens of businesses and their owners, claim former Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake and former Baltimore Police Commissioner Anthony Batts violated state and federal law.

“This lawsuit is the result of the City and the other Defendants failing to do right by these property and business owners,” said attorney Peter K. Hwang. “The City and the other Defendants failed them when they adopted a policy of restraint and issued stand-down orders, caring more about the public perception that they feared would result with increased police presence than preventing what were clearly preventable riots.”

Roughly 390 businesses reported damage from the riots, which broke out on April 25 and 27 in response to the death of Freddie Gray from injuries sustained in police custody.

The lawsuit alleges violation of the Maryland Riot Act, which creates a cause of action when a municipality had notice of the riot and the ability to prevent damage.

The plaintiffs also claim violations of the state and federal constitutional right not to be deprived of property without due process or just compensation.

The city prevented arrests for unlawful assembly, issued a stand-down order to the police and gave protesters room to destroy property, “which constituted a policy of restraint and was tantamount to an official sanction of privately inflicted injury,” according to the complaint. The defendants also failed to request additional resources, including the Maryland National Guard, in a timely manner, and “emboldened participants to riot, engage in violent acts and destroy property.”

The plaintiffs report businesses being looted, burned and destroyed as well as personal injuries from assaults and robberies.

The Baltimore Business Recovery Initiative, launched to offer financial assistance to the damaged businesses in the aftermath, required business owners to waive their right to file a lawsuit against the city. At the time, The Shepard Law Firm LLC in Glen Burnie and Sung & Hwang LLP in Columbia, which represent the plaintiffs in the current lawsuit, called the requirement “unconscionable” and said they had sent notice letters to the Baltimore City Solicitor’s Office on behalf of a few dozen businesses who were contemplating lawsuits.

A spokesman for the mayor’s office declined to comment on pending litigation.

Timeline of events

Hwang said the city failed his clients by not responding adequately to protests that turned violent and then failing to take responsibility for the riots.

The lawsuit’s factual allegations, which cover 37 pages, lay out a timeline of events and statements from Rawlings-Blake and Batts purporting to show their awareness that the protests, which began on April 18 and grew on April 19 after Gray died, were escalating.

The complaint cites a report by the Fraternal Order of Police’s Baltimore lodge which found officers were “ordered to allow the protestors (sic) room to destroy and allow the destruction of property so that the rioters would appear to be the aggressors” and at one point a radio communication instructed them to let looting happen on April 25.

Rawlings-Blake and the city were more concerned about public perception of increased police presence and failed to take “reasonable steps to prevent violence and destruction,” according to the lawsuit.

Even after the events of April 25, city officials failed to adequately protect businesses from further damage, according to the complaint, and police lacked the resources to respond once unrest broke out at Mondawmin Mall and then other locations throughout the city on April 27.

“While the BCPD was unable to prevent the violence at Mondawmin, it was completely unprepared and unable to even have an officer present at affected Locations as they were pulled in different directions when calls of violence and destruction came flooding in,” the complaint states.

Rawlings-Blake also refrained from asking for assistance from the Maryland National Guard until “it was far too late.”

As a result, the plaintiffs “suffered the consequences, according to the complaint.

The case is Chae Brothers et al. v. Mayor and City Council of Baltimore et al., 1:17-cv-01657.


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