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Appeals court affirms $130k verdict against officer for 2015 arrest

The Court of Special Appeals affirmed a $130,000 jury verdict against a Baltimore Police Department officer Monday, finding the trial judge did not abuse her discretion in refusing to ask a proposed question regarding pretrial publicity about the department.

Jurors found Officer James Craig used excessive force when he pulled Myreq Williams off a bus in 2015 and broke his arm. They awarded Williams $110,000 in noneconomic damages, $10,000 in economic damages and $10,000 in punitive damages.

The three-judge panel unanimously affirmed the verdict in an unreported opinion.

“Mr. Williams is heartened by the decision of the Court of Special Appeals, which shows the Baltimore Police Department is not above the law,” attorney Jason Downs said in a statement Tuesday.

City Solicitor Andre M. Davis said Wednesday the city was disappointed in the court’s decision and has not yet decided whether to seek review in the Court of Appeals.

Downs said that the officer was found liable and that he and his client would take the “appropriate steps” to enforce the judgment, which included punitive damages that Davis has previously stated the city does not pay in police misconduct cases.

On Wednesday, Davis said that the city was not required to pay punitive damage awards but that he was not prepared to say it would not cover them in this case.

“This is a judgment against this officer,” he said. “People are always focused on the fact that the city will indemnify the officers when they lose these cases, but the mayor and City Council and the police department are not parties to this case. This officer, Officer Craig, who was simply doing his duty, has had this judgment on his record for over a year now.”

Williams was out past the 10 p.m. curfew in place following unrest after the death of Freddie Gray and attempting to get to his grandmother’s house. Craig came onto the bus Williams was riding, pulled him off and handcuffed him. Williams was ultimately charged with breaking the curfew.

On appeal, Craig argued the court should have used his proposed question to the jury pool about whether media coverage of the department had given prospective jurors a bad impression of the Baltimore Police Department or its officers.

The Court of Special Appeals found that the trial court was within its rights to reject the question because two other questions put to potential jurors addressed Craig’s concerns. The jurors were asked if they would be more or less inclined to give more or less weight to the testimony of a police officer and if they had any strong feelings regarding excessive force by police.

Of the 12 jurors who said they had strong feelings about excessive force, several mentioned media reports as the basis for those feelings, according to the opinion. The two questions “evoked responses pertaining to precisely what (the proposed question) sought to elicit,” Judge Stuart F. Berger wrote on behalf of the panel.

Craig argued that none of the questions specifically sought to learn about bias against Baltimore officers but that the court was “not persuaded by Officer Craig’s individualized approach.”

Praising the court’s opinion, Downs said officers “do not deserve a reward, in the form of special treatment during jury selection, for decades of institutional failures.”

Davis said the city had hoped the court would see the importance of the issue in Baltimore.

“It seems so wrong that something as important as this hinges on which judge you draw because there are a lot of judges on the Circuit Court for Baltimore City that would have asked that question,” he said.

Davis noted that Berger said in the final paragraph of the opinion that “it would have been far preferable for the circuit court to pose (the question)” because it would have been easier and more efficient than the questions that were asked.

The case is Officer James Craig v. Myreq Williams, No. 2404 Sept. 2017.

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