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Judge dismisses counts, keeps potential claim against city in GTTF suit

A federal judge dismissed portions of a man’s lawsuit against former Gun Trace Task Force members Tuesday but preserved a claim that the city is liable for allowing the Baltimore Police Department to develop a culture of violating citizens’ rights.

Robert Johnson, the passenger in a car stopped by GTTF officers Momodu Gondo and Jemell Rayam in August 2014, alleges officers planted a gun during an illegal search, according to court records. Johnson filed suit last year alleging false arrest, illegal search and seizure and intentional infliction of emotional distress.

U.S. District Judge George L. Russell III dismissed those claims, finding they are barred by the statute of limitations. But Russell declined to dismiss Johnson’s claim that the department had a policy or custom of allowing officers to violate constitutional rights, called a Monell claim.

Johnson’s attorney, A. Dwight Pettit, said preserving the Monell claim and allowing the case to proceed to discovery is a victory.

“It gives us an opportunity to do what we haven’t had the opportunity to do before, especially on the Monell argument, and find out who knew what, when they knew it and what they should have done about it,” said Pettit, of the Law Office of A. Dwight Pettit in Baltimore.

Johnson was charged with firearms offenses on Aug. 28, 2014, and pleaded guilty on Nov. 18, 2014. Russell determined that Johnson had three years from the date of his conviction — Nov. 18, 2014 — to file more of his claims and that his April 2019 lawsuit was time-barred.

Most civil causes of action must be filed within three years of when the plaintiff knew or, through reasonable investigation, could have discovered that he or she had a claim. Many attorneys filing suit against the GTTF officers have asserted that March 1, 2020 — three years after the indictments of the officers were made public — was the deadline to file cases.

Johnson argued he did not discover the defendants’ wrongdoing until March 2017, when the GTTF officers were federally indicted for racketeering and accused of fabricating evidence, including planting guns. But Russell found that Johnson said in his complaint that he was aware that his arrest was false and that the officers were telling “blatant lies” to frame him.

Russell concluded Johnson had notice that he should have, at a minimum, investigated his arrest further. Johnson alleges Baltimore Police Department misconduct was “pervasive and publicized” before and after his arrest, which Russell said makes it “difficult to conclude that Johnson would have been unaware, until March 2017, of a potential claim against BPD stemming from his arrest.”

But Russell said there is insufficient evidence to dismiss Johnson’s fabrication of evidence claim under the 14th Amendment because it is unclear if the fabrication of evidence directly led to his conviction. The officers allege Johnson’s guilty plea caused the conviction, but Russell said the record must be developed about the voluntariness of the plea. Because this claim may be viable, Russell also preserved Johnson’s Monell claim, which requires an underlying constitutional violation by the officers.

“It seems to me he’s telling us exactly what we need to prove in discovery to get this case through to trial,” Pettit said of Russell’s opinion.

Acting City Solicitor Dana P. Moore said in a statement Wednesday that Johnson “faces considerable hurdles in establishing liability, including surviving any additional preliminary motions practice and establishing misconduct on the part of the individual officers.”

Moore continued: “Neither the Mayor and City Council nor BPD and its former commissioners committed any wrongdoing and we are confident that further proceedings will establish that they have no liability in this matter.”

The case is Robert Johnson v. Officer Momodu Gondo et al., 1:19-cv-00995.

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