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UMBC, county police sued over sexual assault investigation practices

(The Daily Record / Maximilian Franz)

A lawsuit filed by two former University of Maryland, Baltimore County students who claim they were sexually assaulted alleges the school and Baltimore County police undertook ‘intentional misconduct designed to cover up justifiable complaints of sexual assault.’ (File photo)

Two former University of Maryland, Baltimore County students have filed suit against the school, police and Baltimore County officials alleging a pattern of failing to properly investigate and prosecute sexual assault allegations.

The lawsuit, filed Monday in U.S. District Court in Baltimore, claims violations of federal law and the plaintiffs’ constitutional rights because of the defendants’ combined efforts to minimize the number of sexual assaults reported and investigated in the county.

“I believe that this has happened to hundreds of women in Baltimore County and it’s a tragedy,” said Rignal Baldwin V, of BaldwinLaw LLC in Baltimore. “I hope this lawsuit stops it from continuing to happen.”

The plaintiffs name Baltimore County State’s Attorney Scott Shellenberger and prosecutors in his office, Baltimore County Police Department officers assigned to investigate sex crimes and university investigators.

“This is not a ‘failure to protect’ lawsuit; it is about intentional misconduct designed to cover up justifiable complaints of sexual assault,” the complaint states.

Lisa Akchin, a spokeswoman for UMBC, declined to comment Thursday on the specific allegations in the case.

“The issue of sexual assault in our society is deeply troubling and UMBC as a university community is committed to both prevention of sexual assault and effective response to allegations of sexual misconduct,” she said.

Shellenberger declined to comment Thursday, saying he has not been served with the lawsuit yet.

A spokesman for the police department also declined to comment on the pending litigation.

Improper investigation

The plaintiffs both reported alleged sexual assaults to Baltimore County police but claim their allegations were not properly investigated.

One plaintiff reported a campus sexual assault to UMBC in 2015 and, according to the complaint, was discouraged from contacting the police and persuaded to use the university’s administrative process. She later went to the hospital for an exam and the incident was reported to the police.

The plaintiff claims she was rushed through the university’s interview process without her choice of support person and the draft and final reports contained errors. When she contacted the police to pursue criminal charges, she was told the university did not have a record of the alleged assault, according to the complaint. The incident was classified by police as a “suspicious condition” and the case was closed, according to the complaint.

The second plaintiff reported an alleged assault by UMBC students in Towson in 2017 to the police and the case was closed within 24 hours, according to the complaint. Police later scheduled interviews with the alleged perpetrators who admitted to sexual contact with the plaintiff but claimed it was consensual.

Prosecutors declined to filed charges and the plaintiff alleges she was later discouraged from seeking charges through a court commissioner, including threats to stop applying for charges or face charges herself for abuse of process. The charges against the individuals were later dropped without her knowledge, according to the complaint.

The complaint alleges First Amendment and equal protection violations as well as discrimination and denial of educational opportunities.

Baltimore County police and UMBC were the subject of scrutiny in 2015 and 2016 for the handling of reported sexual assaults, including a BuzzFeed story on the police practice of labeling alleged rapes “unfounded” with minimal investigation and a federal investigation into the university’s reporting practices.

An incident is unfounded when it did not occur or occurred in a different jurisdiction, according to the complaint. The defendants are accused of classifying as many as 43 percent of reported sexual assaults as unfounded in 2014. (The percentage has decreased each year since, falling to 9 percent last year.)

Then-County Executive Kevin Kamenetz ordered an audit of county procedures in 2016, and a report concluded there were deficiencies in the interpretation of sexual assault statutes. But the lawsuit alleges that despite promised reforms, the defendants continued to misclassify sexual assault cases.

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