The Baltimore Police Department routinely violates the constitutional rights of violent crime victims by searching, seizing and retaining their personal property without a warrant or consent, a civil rights group has alleged in a lawsuit filed last week in federal district court.
The three plaintiffs named in the suit claim that “after they were assaulted, they also became victims of BPD” and its “pattern and practice” of violating the Fourth Amendment rights of individuals to be free from unreasonable searches and seizures by law enforcement.
“BPD is no stranger to violating the federal and constitutional rights of the Baltimore residents it is required to protect and serve,” the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights under Law wrote in the complaint filed Thursday in U.S. District Court in Baltimore. “Significant violations have persisted across the administrations and tenures of multiple local elected officials and appointed law enforcement officials, indicating a culture of noncompliance that can only be remedied by court intervention.”
Baltimore Solicitor James L. Shea, the city’s chief lawyer, said Monday that “we’re taking a careful look at the allegations in the complaint. The city takes very seriously its obligation to reform the Baltimore Police Department pursuant to the consent decree which is pending in federal court.”
The Washington-based committee stated in the complaint that it seeks to have the lawsuit court certified as a class action that includes all violent crime victims allegedly victimized a second time by Baltimore police who violated their Fourth Amendment rights.
The committee claimed BPD’s written policies on the control of property and evidence and pertaining to death and serious assault investigations fail to define items which items are seized as “evidentiary” or provide guidance on how long seized items can be held.
BPD “by custom or practice failed to exercise proper judgment to determine whether searches and seizures of crime victims’ property are reasonable,” the committee stated in the complaint.
“Instead BPD’s widespread custom and practice is to seize all available property from victims of serious assaults and characterize it as ‘evidence’ regardless of the reasonableness of the seizure and/or search,” the committee added. “BPD’s custom or practice of engaging in blanket seizures and categorical characterizations of property seized from crime victims violates plaintiffs’ right to be free of unreasonable searches and seizures and the recovery of property whether or not it was properly seized initially.”
The committee stated that it seeks an award of compensatory and punitive damages for the plaintiffs, as well as a court order that the BPD stop its allegedly unconstitutional conduct.
The three named plaintiffs each claim officers took his or her belongings after being shot by unknown assailants.
Faye Cottman was shot in the head at a playground in the Cherry Hill area of Baltimore on March 14, 2019. Officers arriving at the scene allegedly took her jacket, shoes, wig and cellphone and have not returned them, according to the complaint.
Amber Spencer was shot in the head and chest just before midnight on March 20, 2020, while attending a cookout. She was treated at Johns Hopkins Hospital, where police allegedly took her cellphone, jeans, shirt, shoes, car key and about $400 in cash and have not returned the items, the complaint stated.
Damon Gray was shot in the back, neck and chest while walking in Southwest Baltimore on June 29, 2019. Police allegedly seized Gray’s cellphone, bracelet, necklace and articles of clothing while he was being treated at a hospital, according to the complaint.
The New York law firm Orrick, Herrington & Sutcliffe LLP is serving as the lawyers’ committee’s co-counsel.
The case is docketed in U.S. District Court as Faye Cottman et al. v. Baltimore Police Department et al., No. 1:21-cv-00837-SAG.