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Judge allows Riot Act lawsuit against Baltimore to move forward

Scenes from the intersection of North and Pennsylvania Avenue in Northwest Baltimore during the riot that ensued after the funeral for Freddie Gray in April 2015. (The Daily Record/Maximilian Franz).

Scenes from the intersection of North and Pennsylvania Avenue in Northwest Baltimore during the riot that ensued after the funeral for Freddie Gray in April 2015. (The Daily Record/Maximilian Franz).

A federal judge has preserved Maryland Riot Act claims against Baltimore’s mayor and city council in a lawsuit brought by businesses damaged during the 2015 unrest following the death of Freddie Gray.

Dozens of businesses alleged violations of state and federal constitutions as well as the Maryland Riot Act, which creates a cause of action when a municipality had notice of the riot and the ability to prevent damage.

U.S. District Judge George L. Russell III ruled Friday the businesses sufficiently alleged their property was stolen, damaged or destroyed during civil unrest and provided details about the approximate time and extent of the damage. They also showed the unrest could be found to have been foreseeable.

Approximately 400 Baltimore businesses sustained around $9 million in damage during the rioting. After Gray’s death on April 19, protests grew and then-Baltimore police commissioner Anthony W. Batts responded to reports of a large protest planned for April 25 by telling community leaders that peaceful demonstration was encouraged but they “must avoid any attempts to create a riot.” The plaintiffs argued the city “failed to take any reasonable steps to address the risk” of the unrest that occurred April 27.

“Taken together, these allegations are more than sufficient to state a claim that the Mayor & City Council had reason to believe that civil unrest was about to take place,” Russell wrote.

The city argued it does not have legal control over the police but Russell found the plaintiffs adequately claimed the city could have prevented the damage by coordinating with the department. The judge cited a 1971 Maryland Court of Appeals case involving Riot Act claims after the 1968 unrest where the city’s relationship with the police was found to be cooperative and it was plausible the two could have conferred on police action. The relationship between the city and the police department is “even stronger” now, Russell wrote.

Russell on Friday granted the motions to dismiss filed in July by the police and Batts as well as the state.

City Solicitor Andre Davis did not respond to a request for comment Monday.

The plaintiffs’ federal constitutional claims included deprivation of property, intrusions on personal security and unlawful takings. The claims against the state were dismissed because the Supreme Court has held it is not a person to be sued; the claims against the city and police were dismissed because Russell held the plaintiffs failed to “adequately allege the underlying constitutional claims.”

State constitutional claims were similarly dismissed for failure to state a claim.

The plaintiffs are represented by Peter K. Hwang of Sun and Hwang LLP in Columbia and Ray M. Shepard of the Shepard Law Firm in Pasadena. Hwang did not respond to a request for comment Monday.

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

Maryland passed its Riot Act in 1835 permitting citizens to seek compensation from the government for damage to property sustained in a violent disturbance.

The idea, at the time, was that such statutes would “deter the lawless since the sufferer must be compensated by a tax burden which will fall on all property, including that of the evil doers as members of the community,” according to a 1911 Supreme Court opinion.

The law has remained on the books with few substantial changes in nearly 200 years.


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