Baltimore’s lawyer argued in court Monday that though abuses by the former members of the Gun Trace Task Force often occurred when they were on the job and even in uniform, the city should not be responsible for paying judgments obtained by their victims in dozens of potential lawsuits.
Baltimore filed a complaint for declaratory judgment last year asking the circuit court to determine that the city does not have to indemnify the officers against any civil judgments that may be obtained in lawsuits filed by their victims. No civil cases against the officers have gone to trial since their convictions.
Eight officers were indicted on federal racketeering charges and were accused of planting evidence, robbing defendants and committing overtime fraud. Six pleaded guilty and two were convicted at trial. The city’s complaint is limited to the actions either admitted to in plea agreements or underlying the convictions.
The city’s agreement with the police union requires indemnification of officers acting within the scope of their employment. The lawsuit asks for a ruling that the members of the corrupt unit were not within the scope during the incidents cited in the federal cases.
“These were thugs,” Baltimore City Solicitor Andre M. Davis said. “They were gangsters. And they’re proud of it.”
The parties were in court for the defendant officers’ motions to dismiss the complaint. Judge Gregory Sampson said he hoped to issue a written opinion within 30 days.
Davis said the city was not trying to bind current and future plaintiffs with a ruling in this case. If the court ruled that the city did not have to indemnify the defendant officers, Davis acknowledged that the decision would not affect anyone’s right to sue and seek payment from the city, at which time the scope of employment issue would be litigated by those parties.
But, Davis said, if the court rules in the city’s favor in the declaratory judgment action, it may cause people to rethink filing suit.
“Lawyers are going to say to their potential plaintiffs, if there’s not indemnity … you really need to consider whether you’re going to sue these officers,” he said.
Attorneys with clients who have filed or may soon file lawsuits against the police department and the officers attended Monday’s hearing to listen to the city’s arguments.
Joshua Insley, whose firm has about 10 clients with claims against the task force, said the city was hoping for a ruling that says it does not have to pay victims so that future plaintiffs will be discouraged from suing.
“You have a chilling effect, and that’s what they want,” said Insley, of Saller, Lord, Ernstberger & Insley in Baltimore.
Andy Freeman, who represents plaintiffs Umar Burley and Brent Matthews in federal lawsuits against the department, said that though Davis was “eloquent and passionate,” he did not find Davis’ argument convincing.
“The city just needs to own up to the fact that on its watch it allowed its officers to do horrible things that resulted in innocent people going to jail for a number of years and the city needs to compensate them appropriately,” said Freeman, of Brown Goldstein Levy LLP in Baltimore.
Freeman said the case does not affect his clients because their matters are in federal court and a circuit court judge’s ruling will have no impact.
“This is a piece of a larger puzzle where historically the courts have been hostile to lawsuits alleging wrongdoing by law enforcement,” he said.
The federal lawsuits include claims alleging the city is liable for the officers’ conduct because of a pattern of unconstitutional policing and failure to train and supervise officers.
Family members of Elbert Davis Sr., who was killed after Burley’s car collided with his while fleeing a GTTF-initiated stop, were also in the courtroom and expressed disappointment that the city was denying responsibility for the officers.
“We don’t see how someone higher up didn’t know what was going on,” Shirley Johnson, Davis’ daughter, said.
Johnson said the city has to be accountable for what was going on. The family filed a federal lawsuit last August.
Davis told Sampson the case was a perfect set of circumstances for a declaratory judgment because a controversy exists between the parties now, not just once there is a judgment against one of the officers.
The defendants argued in their motions that the legal issues were not ripe because there have been no judgments against their clients yet and that the city should have joined the potential plaintiffs, some of whom have already filed civil suits.
Christopher Jeffries, an attorney for one group of defendants, told Sampson additional events needed to occur for the duty to indemnify the officers even to become an issue.
Jeffries, of Kramon & Graham P.A. in Baltimore, said the potential plaintiffs are the ones who will have a right to enforce a judgment and the issue of who has to pay can be litigated at that time. Neil E. Duke of Baker Donelson in Baltimore represents the remaining defendants and was also present at Monday’s hearing.
The case is Mayor and City Council of Baltimore et al. v. Momodu Bodeva Kenton Gondo et al., 24C18004386.