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Baltimore city, police seek dismissal of lawsuit over ’15 riots

Workers board up the burnt-out DTLR store on Pennsylvania Avenue on April 28, 2015, the morning after the riots in Baltimore. Baltimore city, the Baltimore Police Department and the state are all seeking to dismiss a lawsuit brought by local businesses alleging the defendants failed to properly respond to the unrest. (Maximilian Franz/The Daily Record)

Workers board up the burnt-out DTLR store on Pennsylvania Avenue on April 28, 2015, the morning after the riots in Baltimore. Baltimore city, the Baltimore Police Department and the state are all seeking to dismiss a lawsuit brought by local businesses alleging the defendants failed to properly respond to the unrest. (Maximilian Franz/The Daily Record)

Baltimore city, the Baltimore Police Department and the state are all seeking dismissal of a 264-count complaint by local businesses alleging officials failed to properly respond to the 2015 riots.

The Baltimore city defendants, in court filings, have supported the actions of then-Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake during the unrest, which they claim escalated quickly from peaceful protests to riots.

“The unrest of 2015 lasted for only one night, in stark contrast to the last time Baltimore experienced civil disturbances of this kind,” states the motion, filed in late June. “In 1968, following the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., seven days of rioting resulted in six casualties and over 700 injuries.”

The police department and state filed their own motions to dismiss in early July. The plaintiffs have responded to two of the three motions and requested a hearing as of Tuesday.

Dozens of businesses and their owners filed suit earlier this year in a case that was removed to U.S. District Court in June. Rawlings-Blake and former police Commissioner Anthony Batts also are named as defendants.

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 includes claims under 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.

Acknowledging the “scarcity of precedent” for Riot Act lawsuits, the city defendants argue the business owners have not established city officials had reason to expect the riots or had the resources to prevent property damage. The city and mayor also do not have control over the police force, which is overseen by the commissioner, according to the city’s motion.

But the plaintiffs alleged in their July 27 response that officials had adequate notice of possible rioting and the Court of Appeals has found the city has sufficient control over the department for the purposes of Riot Act claims, citing a case stemming from the 1968 riots.

The defendants, including the state and police department, also argue the plaintiffs’ federal constitutional claims should be dismissed because there is no federal cause of action for riot-related damages and no state action has been alleged because city and police officials had no duty to act affirmatively to prevent damage by private actors. The plaintiffs also do not specify or allege any process they believe should have been due before the theft or destruction of their property.

In response, the plaintiffs contend the city increased the risk of harm from a third party, implicating the Constitution’s due process clause, when officials “affirmatively acted” by “adopting a policy of restraint.” The city’s involvement, through issuing stand-down orders and preventing arrests, was also direct enough for the resulting damage to be considered a taking, the plaintiffs claim.

The state also seeks the dismissal of constitutional claims because it is not an entity that can be sued under federal law for deprivation of rights, citing a 1989 Supreme Court cases which held the state is not a “person.” The plaintiffs acknowledged the precedent in their response but say the 5-4 decision was incorrect and express a desire to preserve the issue.

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


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