Wrongful-death suit against Baltimore police opens

Officers accused of deliberately driving erratically with suspect

March 26, 2010|By Jessica Anderson

A $100 million civil trial opened Thursday with attorneys contending that Baltimore police officers purposely drove erratically while transporting a suspect, leading to the man's death.

Dondi Johnson Sr., 43, had been arrested in November 2005 by officers Sendy Ferdinand and Michael Riser on a charge that he urinated at Pimlico Road and Loyola Southway. Officer Nicole Leake testified that she picked up Johnson in a police van.

Johnson died Dec. 7, 2005, of a fractured spine, according to the wrongful-death lawsuit filed by his family against the three officers. It contends that the officers "maliciously failed to belt [Johnson] into ... police van's seat so that he was subject to being violently thrown around the back of the vehicle as the Defendant Leake drove in an aggressive fashion, taking turns so as to injure [Johnson] who was helplessly cuffed."

Lawyers for the officers denied the allegations, saying that Johnson didn't appear injured and that they suspected he was feigning injury to delay being taken to be booked.

David Owens, who represents the two male officers, said in court that Johnson was in plastic flex cuffs when he was put into the van after his arrest. He said Ferdinand and Riser followed Leake en route to Central Booking and Intake Center. But Owens said they stopped at the Northwest District station to let Johnson use that restroom.

When the officers opened the back of the van, they found him on the floor, and he asked to go to the hospital, Owens said. Owens said one officer looked at Johnson with a flashlight and found no obvious injuries and nothing indicating he could not move. He said the officers nonetheless took him to Sinai Hospital.

On the witness stand, Leake denied driving recklessly. She testified that officers did not use the seat belt because some suspects can be unpredictable when strapped in the van.

Johnson's relatives - Dondi Johnston Jr. and Andrea Scott - are seeking $100 million in damages. Baltimore City is not named in the suit being heard in Baltimore Circuit Court.

Johnson's lawyers called former Baltimore police Lt. Charles J. "Joe" Key, who wrote the department's rules on deadly force, to testify about police policy and procedures.

According to the department handbook, arrestees should be "secured with seat/restraint belts," but the procedure "should be evaluated on an individual basis so not to place oneself in any danger."

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