A new federal civil rights lawsuit claims that Baltimore County police officers violently beat five members of the same family after claiming to smell an odor of marijuana coming from a parked vehicle with its windows up.
The family went out to dinner on Jan. 25, 2020, to celebrate their daughter’s upcoming 18th birthday when they were stopped by the officers, according to the complaint.
What followed was a “gross display of excessive force,” said Hannah Ernstberger, the lawyer representing the family. The complaint alleges that the Westminster family’s two parents, their daughter and adult son, and a cousin were all assaulted by the officers and suffered injuries.
All five were also arrested and charged with crimes, but the charges against each were later dropped or placed on the stet docket.
The complaint names nine Baltimore County police officers and refers to extensive body camera footage of the incident.
According to the lawsuit, Shaneris Nalls, now 20, and three female friends were sitting in a parked vehicle at about 7:30 p.m. after having dinner at to celebrate her birthday at City View Bar & Grill on Security Boulevard.
Two police officers drove by and approached the vehicle. One of the officers, Evan Vicarini, claimed that he could smell marijuana coming from the vehicle, though its windows were rolled up and other cars were nearby.
Vicarini would later tell another officer, “‘We drove by and they gave us the (expletive) crim look,’ seemingly admitting that the officers stopped the vehicle and the occupants based on appearance alone,” Ernstberger wrote in the complaint.
Vicarini told Nalls that if she handed over marijuana she would be free to leave without a citation, the complaint claims. Nalls handed over a joint, but Vicarini believed there was more inside the vehicle and ordered the passengers out.
Nalls’s mother, Dayaneris Dmeza, approached to speak with Vicarini. When Dmeza’s husband, Shamdu V. Nalls, and son, Shamdu C. Nalls, also arrived, Vicarini told the other police officers who had responded to “hook ’em” if “they start to get out of hand,” according to the complaint.
Shaneris Nalls and her mother approached their vehicle to warm up. Vicarini told Dmeza to back up, grabbed her hoodie and slammed her into the side of the vehicle, the complaint claims.
Shaneris Nalls tried to step in, but Vicarini threw her to the ground and kneeled on top of her before handcuffing and arresting her.
Another officer, Anthony Vitacco, then slammed Dmeza into a metal fence near the vehicle. Dmeza’s husband, Shamdu V. Nalls, tried to intervene nonviolently, according to the complaint, and was punched multiple times by Vicarini.
Other officers then slammed him to the ground, where he was beaten, kicked and Tased by four officers while his hands were behind his back. One officer kicked him in the face and he lost consciousness before being dragged into a nearby police vehicle and Tased again, the complaint claims.
A cousin, Nehemiah Lembert, tried to check on Dmeza when four officers violently forced him into the metal fence and onto the ground. Multiple officers placed their hands around Lembert’s neck or used their arms in an effort to choke him while his hands were behind his back, according to the complaint.
Finally, the couple’s son, Shamdu C. Nalls, rushed past the officers with his hands raised to check on his mother. As officers grabbed him, he lost his balance and fell into one of the officers. Another Tased Nalls and continued Tasing him after he had fallen to the ground, the complaint alleges.
The complaint also claims that on multiple occasions, the responding officers put their body weight on top of the members of the family they were arresting, causing difficulty breathing.
All five of the family members were taken to the police precinct and charged with crimes. According to the complaint, Shaneris Nalls was charged with possession of marijuana and her brother and cousin were charged with assault on a law enforcement officer and resisting arrest. The charges were ultimately dismissed, Ernstberger wrote.
Dmeza was charged with failure to obey a lawful order and disorderly conduct and her husband, Shamdu V. Nalls, was charged with assault on a law enforcement officer and resisting arrest. Their charges were placed on the stet docket, court records show.
The complaint claims that body-worn camera footage also captured officers Vitacco and Vicarini conspiring to create a “fabricated story” about the arrests in their statement of probable cause. One officer covered Vitacco’s body camera in an effort to muffle their conversation, the complaint alleges.
All of the family members were injured during the arrests. Shamdu C. Nalls and Dmeza suffered concussions, according to the complaint, and Shamdu V. Nalls suffered a broken bone near his eye.
Ernstberger said the family believes the incident was at least partially motivated by race. Shamdu V. Nalls is African American and Dmeza is Hispanic.
The family continues to struggle with issues related to post-traumatic stress disorder, Ernstberger said.
The family filed complaints with the Baltimore County Police Department a few days after the incident. In December 2021, they received a letter that said “the officer was in violation of departmental rules and regulations” and that “corrective administrative action will be initiated,” but provided no other information. A copy of the letter is included with their lawsuit.
The suit brings claims of excessive force, false arrest and malicious prosecution. It also raises a Monell claim against Baltimore County for failing to train and supervise the officers.
Spokeswomen for the county and for the police department declined to comment.
Lawmakers this year are considering legislation that would prohibit police officers from citing the odor of marijuana as the sole basis for reasonable suspicion or probable cause, with the exception of investigations for impaired driving. Marijuana will become legal in Maryland on July 1.