Agree with state on suit alleging improper strip searches, arrests


No sweeping changes expected at jail

February 26, 2010|By Justin Fenton |

The NAACP and the American Civil Liberties Union have reached an agreement with the state on a nearly four-year-old lawsuit alleging improper strip searches and detention of innocent people at the state-run city jail, part of a broader suit that targeted the city's high number of arrests.

The suit was filed in 2006 on behalf of 14 people, who alleged their arrests indicated a broad pattern of abuse in which they say thousands of people were routinely arrested and in turn held for hours without charges and subject to "filthy and overcrowded" conditions at Central Booking. The suit also incorporated a separate class-action lawsuit targeting strip-search at the city jail.

In a Feb. 19 status report to U.S. District Judge Catherine C. Blake, ACLU staff attorney David Rocah wrote that mediation had not concluded but that attorneys for the plaintiffs and the state had reached an "agreement in principle" that would be relayed to his clients. About a week earlier, an attorney for the state said he expected an end to the proceedings "shortly."

Officials would not comment on the proceedings or the terms of the settlement agreement, though it was not expected to include any sweeping policy changes at the city jail.

The primary focus of the lawsuit has been the claims of illegal, mass arrests, and records do not indicate progress with the Baltimore Police Department in regards to arrest policies, though the head of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People hinted at a coming conclusion.

During a panel discussion Wednesday night hosted by the Investigative Voice Web site, NAACP Baltimore chapter President Marvin "Doc" Cheatham mentioned the lawsuit when the topic of excessive arrests was raised.

"We will win that case. You'll hear about it in two months," Cheatham said. "The arrests were improper."

The lawsuit, filed first in Baltimore Circuit Court and later filed in federal courts, condemned the city's practice of jailing citizens for so-called quality-of-life crimes such as loitering - one of the central strategies once emphasized by police here. The issue received widespread attention after The Baltimore Sun reported on overcrowding at the city jail.

The plaintiffs, including a 19-year-old Morgan State engineering student, a Parkville elementary school teacher, a doctoral candidate in neurobiology from Texas, and two Pennsylvania residents visiting Baltimore for a bachelor party, alleged that city police routinely make arrests without probable cause and do so "under a pattern and practice set and enforced by city officials."

In their amended complaint, the plaintiffs said state officials "compounded the problem" by conducting strip searches of male arrestees without probable cause or individualized suspicion that they are carrying weapons or contraband, in violation of the U.S. Constitution and Maryland Declaration of Rights. In some cases, they alleged, detainees were held beyond the 24-hour time limit, in some cases longer than 48 hours.

"These unconstitutional and illegal acts degrade, humiliate, and cause grave harm to their victims," the lawsuit alleged.

The time period covered by the specific allegations by the plaintiffs range from 2005 to 2007, under the tenure of Mayor Martin O'Malley, now governor of Maryland, a Democrat, and Police Commissioner Leonard D. Hamm.

In recent years, officials have trumpeted a steady reduction in arrests and arrests without charges. More than 108,400 arrests were made in 2005, a figure that dropped to 77,600 in 2009. Still, critics charge that the practice continues.

The plaintiffs folded problems at Central Booking into their complaint, saying the "large number of illegal arrests" created a backlog at the facility, subjecting detainees to overcrowded conditions and extended detentions. Central Booking was designed to handle about 60,000 bookings each year and 895 arrestees at any time, they said, but because of the bump in arrests was handling more than 100,000 bookings and regularly holding 1,200 arrestees at any time.

The lawsuit cites an October 2005 consultant's report which said "no one [is] in charge" of ensuring the prompt processing of detainees.

Mark Venarelli, a spokesman for the Department of Public Safety and Correctional Services, said the agency could not comment on whether there have been policy changes at the jail since 2005.

The complaint spells out a number of horror stories from people who say they were rounded up and jailed. One includes a group of men handing out religious literature on a Northeast Baltimore sidewalk in 2006, who say they were arrested when they turned a camera on police asking them to stop handing out the fliers. At Central Booking, they say, their robes were removed and they were subjected to strip searches.

Timothy Johnson alleges he was in Baltimore in June 2006 for a conference for the Research Society on Alcoholism and was arrested while walking back to a hotel with a woman and some friends. Police pulled up and arrested the woman, then as Johnson walked away he was picked up for "hindering" and kept at Central Booking for six hours after a strip search. He was released 30 minutes before he was to give a presentation at the conference.

Parkville teacher Jonathan Lindsay alleged that he was arrested in July 2007 as he filmed an arrest in Canton. An officer told him he could not take photographs. Lindsay and his friend, Armando Horsey, were arrested and searched. "A police officer told Lindsay that he shouldn't worry about being arrested because he would be released in a few hours," the complaint says.

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