Man, 55, wins suit against police

Five city officers accused of brutality ordered to pay tavern owner $2.5 million

November 21, 2003|By Kimberly A.C. Wilson | Kimberly A.C. Wilson,SUN STAFF

A Baltimore jury awarded a $2.5 million civil verdict yesterday to a man who alleged racism and rough treatment at the hands of police after he was briefly detained in 1998.

In an unusual strategy, the victim, Hopeton Davis, a Jamaican tavern owner, sued only the officers involved in the assault - not the mayor, city and Police Department, as seen typically in brutality lawsuits.

Five Baltimore police officers took Davis into custody Dec. 5, 1998, after a 911 caller reported seeing a man with a handgun in a red truck in the 2300 block of E. Lafayette Ave. He was released after officers confirmed he had a permit for the weapon.

Davis, 55, sued the officers for assault and battery, negligence, false arrest, false imprisonment, intentional infliction of emotional distress and violation of his civil rights.

On the night of the incident, Davis told jurors, he was sitting in his truck outside Dream Tavern Caribbean in East Baltimore when five officers pulled him out, pushed him to the ground, pulled his arms back and handcuffed him. When he complained that the restraints were too tight, one of the officers made them tighter and another kneed him in the back. Then, Davis said, an officer called him a racial slur as the others bragged about "putting a back breaker" on him.

Davis sought medical treatment for a torn rotator cuff after the incident.

City Solicitor Thurman W. Zollicoffer Jr. said the case sounded like good police work - not brutality.

"From the facts that I'm aware of, I'm not even sure I would characterize it as a brutality case," Zollicoffer said. "Even if you believe that the officers did what they were accused of doing, the verdict is clearly an incredibly, exceptionally large verdict. I think they acted clearly within the scope of their duty and given the backdrop of 200-some murders in this city, I don't think most people would say otherwise."

Three witnesses corroborated the allegations, said Davis' attorney, Norris C. Ramsey. The officers denied that any brutality occurred.

At the end of the four-day trial, the jury took about five hours to find the officers responsible on all counts. It awarded compensatory and punitive damages totaling $500,000 each against Brian A. Biehler, 41, an officer since 1995, now assigned to the Organized Crime Division; Gregg B. Boyd, 35, an Eastern District officer since 1996; Eric M. Mentzer, 46, an Eastern District officer since 1989; George M. Clinedist III, 32, an officer assigned to the Southeastern District, on the force since 1994; and Jeffrey G. Hitaffer, who left the department.

Matt Jablow, a police spokesman, said all five of the officers were charged by the city police internal affairs unit with excessive force. Internal affairs officials later sustained the charges against all except Hitaffer, Jablow said, and they were required to undergo counseling.

Ramsey, who specializes in civil rights law, said he made a strategic decision not to sue "the usual suspects" - the mayor, city and Police Department.

"That avoided the quagmire of witnesses and expenses in proving the Police Department was negligent in the training of its officers," Ramsey said. "It was just easier to sue the officers."

Zollicoffer said the officers' attorney, Troy A. Priest, will file motions at a hearing Jan. 7 to set aside the verdict or have it reduced to the statutory civil cap of $350,000. Priest did not return calls last night.

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