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Crime & Justiceby Mark Reutter8:30 amJul 25, 20170

Cell phone encounter with police results in $80,000 settlement

The phone in question is missing

Above: Police headquarters on East Fayette Street. (Mark Reutter)

Baltimore City will pay $80,000 to a 28-year-old woman who said a police officer roughed her up and confiscated her cell phone after discovering that she was recording the officer’s actions at the Westside Shopping Center.

The Board of Estimates, headed by Mayor Catherine Pugh, is set to approve the award to Christen M. Brown at tomorrow’s meeting.

The agreement comes on the heels of a settlement in which the city paid $220,000 to end a lawsuit by a woman who said police smashed her cell phone and assaulted her after one of the officers noticed her videotaping the arrest of a boy on Harford Road in 2012.

(In June 2012, the U.S. Department of Justice issued a legal statement affirming that citizens have a First Amendment right to record police officers publicly performing their official duties.

(This right, however, was not incorporated into Baltimore Police regulations until 2014 after the city paid $250,000 to a Howard County man who said BPD officers had seized his phone and deleted a video of them arresting a female friend during the 2010 Preakness.)

A Flash and Confrontation

The latest cell phone incident took place shortly before midnight on July 12, 2013 off of the 2400 block of Frederick Road.

Southwest District Officer Latisha T. Adams approached a car that had been driving erratically in the shopping center parking lot before it stopped next to Brown’s vehicle in front of a laundromat.

As Officer Adams drew a gun at the car’s occupant, saying she believed the party was armed, Brown activated her cell phone camera to capture the incident.

Seeing “a flash come from Ms. Brown’s car that drew her attention,” Officer Adams turned to Brown and demanded to see her identification, according to a summary of the case submitted to the board.

The two got into an altercation when the officer reached into Brown’s car window – to retrieve her ID, according to the officer, and to snatch away the cell phone, according to Brown.

Cell Phone Disappears

After Brown “attempted to close Officer Adam’s right hand in her car window,” Brown was “ripped out of her vehicle and thrown to the ground,” according to the summary, and “as a result, she sustained injuries and ripped clothing.”

Brown was released the following day, but her phone “was never returned to her and was not listed on the inventory list [of personal effects when she was arrested],” the summary said.

Brown filed a suit in Baltimore Circuit Court against Officer Adams and the city, charging false arrest, false imprisonment, battery, malicious prosecution and pattern or practice of improper conduct.

The city actively fought the suit, hiring a private law firm for the officer and police department, until the discovery process was started.

Under the settlement terms, Brown will receive $80,000 in exchange for dropping her lawsuit and not speaking about her case to the media or making any public comments about the litigation or the agents, representatives and attorneys for the city and police department.

Gag Rule Challenged

Baltimore’s practice of enforcing such a non-disparagement “gag” rule in police settlements is under challenge by the Maryland American Civil Liberties Union.

Last month, the ACLU filed a lawsuit in U.S. District Court on behalf of Ashley Overbey and The Brew, alleging the practice violates the First Amendment rights of free speech and freedom of the press.

According to the suit (which the city has not yet responded to), “The one-sided provision, incorporated into the standard agreement the city uses to settle civil rights and related lawsuits filed against its Police Department, bars settling plaintiffs from discussing the facts of their lawsuits on pain on losing half of all settlement proceeds.”

This happened to Overbey, who was penalized for responding to critical comments about her case on the Baltimore Sun website following her September 2014 settlement.

When the settlement was approved, the Board of Estimates provided no narrative of the case. The law department subsequently released a summary, based on the police arrest report and related documents, to The Brew and another news organization.

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