Family to sue over search

Lawyer says undercover Baltimore police unit illegally searched man's car and home

September 26, 2006|By Julie Bykowicz | Julie Bykowicz,Sun reporter

A lawyer for a Baltimore family that says it had a frightening encounter with undercover officers and alleges that their home was illegally searched has given notice of intent to file a sweeping civil lawsuit that condemns the officers and the system that enabled them.

Craig Kemp and his mother and sister will be asking for damages in excess of $1 million, according to a notice of claim. Kemp says officers searched his car and home without a warrant, where he says he kept thousands of dollars in cash that turned up missing.

This would be the first civil suit to grow out of complaints about a "Special Enforcement Team" unit whose officers worked mainly in plain clothes and unmarked cars in the city's Southeast neighborhoods.

The notice of claim - under state law a necessary precursor to a civil suit - names the SET unit officers, police commanders, the Baltimore Police Department, the mayor and City Council, and the state.

The city paid out $3.5 million last year and $5 million in 2004 in judgments and settlements connected with lawsuits against the Baltimore Police Department.

City Solicitor Ralph S. Tyler said yesterday that the city's law department had received Kemp's complaint and would "investigate and respond appropriately."

Attorney Matthew E. Bennett wrote in the claim notice, mailed Friday to Tyler, that the SET unit was "permitted, with virtual impunity, to engage in rogue police work."

The claim notice alleges that the Police Department is "maintaining and tolerating unconstitutional policies and/or customs relating to widespread and systemic patterns and/or practices of police misconduct."

"Somewhere along the line, something in the system failed," Bennett said yesterday.

The lawyer said four others have contacted him with stories similar to Kemp's and that he plans to file claim notices in their cases in the coming days.

Prosecutors have been investigating the actions of about six SET officers led by Sgt. William Harris for several months, defense attorneys say. The officers are no longer being called to testify in court cases, jeopardizing more than 100 of their arrests.

None of the officers has been charged with a crime. The Police Department disbanded Harris' unit in early August and reassigned him and the officers to administrative duties. The department says it is conducting an internal investigation.

Police Commissioner Leonard D. Hamm and police spokesman Matt Jablow have said they will not comment during the internal investigation.

Allegations of the unit's misconduct include the officers drawing up sworn court papers with fictional or embellished scenarios to justify arrests and taking money and drugs but not properly reporting it.

Bennett said he has an earlier example of Harris' questionable report-writing from an excessive-force lawsuit years ago.

In that case, Bennett's client, Albert McKoy, claimed Harris' partner at the time punctured his right eye, causing him to lose it, during an August 1996 drug arrest. Bennett said he believed that a police report written by Harris was a fictionalized version of how McKoy lost his eye.

The report said that McKoy's head struck the ground and that the officers later noticed blood coming from his forehead. A doctor who treated McKoy said the eye injury had come from "a sharp object" because there were no other serious injuries to the face, according to internal police documents that became part of the court case.

"Anyone who looked at the documents and the police report would reach the conclusion that the officer wasn't telling the truth," Bennett said yesterday.

The McKoy case settled about eight years ago, but Bennett said he could not discuss the settlement because of a possible confidentiality clause.

In Kemp's case, Harris' SET unit stopped him for speeding Nov. 2 last year. According to the claim notice, the officers "without a warrant or probable cause ... searched said vehicle, seized Kemp's keys and other items, obtained Kemp's home address for improper purposes."

Some of the officers, according to the claim notice, then drove to Kemp's nearby home and "unconstitutionally and without a warrant or probable cause used Kemp's keys to gain entry into the residence, searched the residence, seized items, including money, from the house, detained [Kemp's mother and sister]."

In a recent interview, Kemp, his mother, Yvonne Rice, and his sister, Crystal Kemp, described their encounter with the police.

Craig Kemp, 24, said that during the traffic stop he saw the SET officers find and package an illegal handgun in his car - but then unpackage it and put it back in his car before a gun-sniffing police dog arrived at the scene.

He passed a lie-detector test, which his criminal defense attorney Christie P. Needleman said a city prosecutor had requested, as to the truthfulness of that scenario. The Sun reviewed those test results.

Needleman also is involved in Kemp's civil suit.

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