Nine send notice of police suit

Plaintiffs complain over Southeast team's actions

December 16, 2006|By Julie Bykowicz | Julie Bykowicz,Sun reporter

Nine people have sent official notice to the city that they intend to file four lawsuits alleging that officers in a Baltimore police unit under investigation conducted baseless traffic stops and warrantless searches of homes.

The plaintiffs are the latest to complain about actions of a "Specialized Enforcement Team" that worked in Southeast Baltimore. City prosecutors began investigating the unit in the spring, and the Police Department reassigned the officers and began an internal probe this summer.

Under state law, a notice of claim is a necessary precursor to a civil suit. The four notices, two of which were sent yesterday, include accusations of improper car stops and home searches and describe SET officers pocketing money, planting drugs and engaging in reckless behavior. One man says officers made him lie face down on the double-yellow line of Pulaski Highway.

Matt Jablow, a police spokesman, would not comment on the specifics of the claim notices. A city lawyer could not be reached yesterday afternoon.

These notices follow one filed in September by Craig Kemp and his family, who say plainclothes SET officers searched their home without obtaining a warrant and stole $28,000.

"Everyone understands that police have a job to do," said Matthew E. Bennett, who along with Christie P. Needleman, represents plaintiffs in the five suits. "But this is conduct not different in degree, but different in kind. It's the same story repeated over and over again by different clients, none of whom have met each other."

The new notices allege traffic stops that, in three cases, spun into home searches:

On Sept. 12 last year on Winner Avenue, SET officers stopped a vehicle driven by Colin Hines, 41, drew their guns and searched the vehicle. Some officers left and returned with a bag of marijuana, he says. One told him: "Who do you think the judge will believe, me or you?" he says.

Hines was arrested and held at Central Booking for several days, the notice says. While he was detained, he says, officers took his keys and searched his home.

Court records list Hines as a co-defendant in a drug case from that date. The charges against him were placed on the inactive docket in February, but the co-defendant pleaded guilty to drug possession with intent to distribute and was sentenced to time served.

On Oct. 28 last year on Kirk Avenue, SET officers stopped a van occupied by David Bazemore, 27, and Stewart Brice, 22, pointed guns and searched the vehicle.

The officers also "broke through the door" of a residence near the stop and searched Thomas Franklin, 26, Jawan Roberts, 26, and Shahed Moody, 28, of Baltimore, according to the claim notice.

All five men were loaded into the van that had been pulled over, and an officer drove it "in an extremely reckless, dangerous, unlawful and improper manner through the streets," the claim notice says. Officers also searched the apartment of Franklin's mother, using his keys to enter, the claim notice says.

Charges against four of the men, for drug and gun possession, later were dropped by prosecutors or placed on the inactive docket. Moody was found not guilty at a trial in May.

On March 19 this year, SET officers stopped a vehicle driven by Deric Ford, 24, put him in a police car and drove him to his home. There, the claim notice says, officers searched the residence and took money. Ford was charged two weeks later with gun and drug possession. Court records show prosecutors dropped the case in June.

One afternoon this spring, SET officers pulled over a vehicle driven by Alden Bridges, 40, at Pulaski Highway and Highland Avenue. While searching his vehicle, the claim notice says, officers forced him to lie facedown on Pulaski "thereby endangering his life."

Bennett said the similarities in the stories his clients told him "raised a big red flag."

"We can't have a system where police stop people on a hunch and then give a post-hoc justification for the stop," he said.

Jablow said yesterday that the internal investigation is continuing. The probe centers on sworn court papers that contain fictional or embellished scenarios to justify arrests, according to local defense attorneys whose clients have participated in it.

As prosecutors were dropping charges lodged by the unit, they began interviewing the defendants about the behavior of the officers who arrested them. Some former defendants have taken - and passed - lie-detector tests after describing their encounters with the SET officers. Kemp took and passed a test, the results of which were reviewed by The Sun.

Margaret T. Burns, a spokeswoman for the Baltimore state's attorney's office, said prosecutors continue to assist in the police internal investigation.

The SET unit was made up of six officers and led by Sgt. William Harris. The sergeant and Officers Shakil Moss and Agustin Rodriguez have been suspended with pay, Jablow said. They are working administrative duties.

Three other officers named in some of the lawsuit notices, Kiam Preston, Nathan Roles and Chemene Washington, remain on active duty, Jablow said. The sixth officer, Terre Shields, resigned recently. She had faced arson and fraud charges unrelated to the SET unit and had a business and personal relationship with a convicted drug dealer. Prosecutors dropped the arson-fraud charges.

None of the disbanded unit's officers is allowed to testify in court cases, which has prompted prosecutors to drop more than 100 felony Circuit Court cases, most of them drug cases, Burns said. Countless other District Court cases have been dropped, she said.

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