Over the past five years, Baltimore taxpayers have ended up paying more than $24.5 million to settle police misconduct lawsuits – and the amount is rising. A pending settlement amounts to $15 million and was not included in this total. Many more lawsuits are currently working their way through the court system.
Baltimore taxpayers should assume they will pay for a lot more settlements. Those funds could have gone to fund recreation and parks and serve other public needs.
The city’s budget director, Robert Cename, revealed the police misconduct settlement amounts to the City Council. It is difficult to determine the actual cost of police misconduct settlements since only amounts of $50,000 or more are reported to the city’s Board of Estimates. Since the overwhelming majority of settlements are below that number, retrieving the information requires a painstaking process of going through court records.
While it is possible to obtain information via a Maryland Public Records Act request, all settlement amounts may not appear. The true settlement total during this timeframe is likely far more than $24.5 million once the many lower value settlements are included.
Gag orders included with the settlements prevent plaintiffs from discussing the amounts or details publicly. Claimants are not permitted to “disparage” the Baltimore police.
State vs. Federal Caps
While under Maryland law, judgments against public employees and municipalities are capped at $400,000, that is not the case in federal courts. When it comes to civil rights violations, there is no federal limit on compensation.
For that reason, more Maryland lawyers are filing civil rights lawsuits against public agencies in federal rather than state court. The pending $15 million settlement was a huge motivator.
$15 Million Pending Settlement
The $15 million pending settlement involves the sloppy police work in the 1994 murder of Michelle Dyson. Her boyfriend, Sabein Burgess, found her body at her home and called the police. They found him cradling his dead girlfriend’s head in his hands.
Burgess was taken into custody and professed his innocence. Allegedly, he was told by police that they would find someone to testify that he did it. Burgess was convicted and sentenced to life in prison. He served 19 years before he was released in 2014 with the help of the Mid-Atlantic Innocence Project.
The police withheld the fact that Dyson’s young son told them Burgess did not kill his mother. This information was never disclosed to the prosecutor or to Burgess and his attorney. They also fabricated gun residue evidence to implicate Burgess.
The actual murderer later confessed to the crime. Burgess filed suit in federal court, claiming various city officials and police officers violated his civil rights. The lawsuit named detectives Gerald Goldstein and Steven Lehmann.
Burgess was awarded $15 million after a jury trial in late November 2017. The city appealed.
Nearly Three Times the Freddie Gray Settlement
Burgess’ settlement amount is nearly three times the $6.2 million the family of Freddie Gray received in 2015. Gray’s death while in police custody drew national headlines and led to civil unrest.