The family of a man who was killed during a police chase initiated by members of Baltimore’s Gun Trace Task Force has filed a federal lawsuit seeking $25 million in damages.
Among the defendants named in the complaint is Wayne Earl Jenkins, a member of the corrupt unit who was sentenced in June to 25 years in prison after pleading guilty to corruption charges, as well as the estate of detective Sean Suiter and Ryan Guinn, an officer. Suiter and Guinn were working with Jenkins at the time of the incident that left Elbert Davis Sr. dead.
Davis was killed in a 2010 collision with a car driven by Umar Burley. Burley and his passenger were fleeing an unmarked vehicle driven by Jenkins and a second vehicle driven by Suiter.
The officers did aid Davis at the scene, according to the complaint, filed Thursday in U.S. District Court in Baltimore, but “worked to cover their tracks to justify their unlawful actions” by planting drugs in Burley’s car and arresting both occupants. Burley pleaded guilty to vehicular manslaughter in state court and possession with intent to distribute in federal court.
Both men had their convictions vacated after the indictment of eight members of the task force and have since filed their own suit.
Jenkins admitted to the incident in his January plea agreement and apologized to Davis’ family at his sentencing hearing in June.
The plaintiffs, which include Davis’ children and estate, are represented by attorneys from Azrael, Franz, Schwab & Lipowitz LLC in Towson. Attorneys for the plaintiffs did not respond to a request for comment Friday.
Baltimore City Solicitor Andre Davis declined to comment on the lawsuit Friday because he had not yet reviewed it.
Pattern and practice
Since the federal indictments and subsequent convictions of members of the task force, more than 50 claims have been submitted to the city and a handful of lawsuits have been filed.
Thursday’s lawsuit includes a 14th Amendment claim because the officers allegedly deprived Davis of his right to life and liberty without due process as well as a Monell claim alleging the city is liable for the officers’ conduct because of a pattern of unconstitutional policing and failure to train and supervise officers.
The complaint alleges the department “turned a blind eye to this pattern and practice of illegal activity, allowing Defendant officers an opportunity they never should have had to engage in the conduct at issue in this case.”
The department’s policymakers were aware of the potential for abuse among units like the Gun Trace Task Force, according to the complaint, because previous plainclothes units had a history of misconduct allegations.
The lawsuit also mentions a 2016 report by the U.S. Department of Justice that concluded the Baltimore Police Department engaged in unconstitutional policing practices.
In addition to federal constitutional claims, the complaint alleges state torts including wrongful death, survival action and negligence. There is also a negligent hiring, training and supervision claim against the Baltimore Police Department and a respondeat superior claim alleging the department is vicariously liable for the officers’ actions. The lawsuit also names the city and state as defendants.
The Davis family’s complaint frequently mentions that the defendants were acting “within the scope of their employment” at the time of the incident and includes a count claiming that the city must indemnify the officers for any judgments against them.
Andre Davis has announced the city’s policy will be not to indemnify the officers in civil suits against them. The city solicitor filed a complaint for declaratory judgment last week arguing the city is not liable for damages stemming from actions for which the officers pleaded guilty.
“The offenses to which Defendants pled guilty demonstrate actions and omissions and various forms of conduct that grossly depart from any authorized or legitimate police conduct,” the complaint states.
In his plea agreement, Jenkins admitted to engaging in the pursuit of Burley and arresting him for possession of drugs he knew were planted, the underlying unconstitutional conduct in the Davis family’s lawsuit.
The case is Shirley Johnson et al. v. Baltimore City Police Department et al., 1:18-cv-02375.