Court Rules Family of Boy Arrested on Dirt Bike Got Fair Civil Trial

… Civil jury denied pay out for Baltimore arrest …

By Peter Hermann, The Baltimore Sun

8:09 PM EDT, October 3, 2011

A family that unsuccessfully sued Baltimore police officers who arrested a 7-year-old boy for illegally riding a dirt bike in 2007 received a fair civil trial in Howard County, the state’s second-highest court has ruled.

The family had hoped to collect $700,000 in damages after Gerard Mungo Jr., who is now 11, was arrested. However a Howard County jury rejected the family’s civil suit, even after a judge ruled that the arrest of the boy was illegal.

In their appeal, the family’s lawyers contended that the case should not have been moved to Howard County, because lawyers were not allowed to argue against it and because the racial makeup of the county is different from the city’s.

In its ruling issued Friday, the Court of Special Appeals decided that a city judge properly moved the case out of Baltimore because of the volume of publicity fueled by protesters, the news media and what judges called prejudicial comments by the city’s mayor.

The appellate judges also rejected arguments by the attorney for the boy’s mother that the case should not have been sent to Howard County specifically. The lawyer argued that Howard County is about 18 percent black; Baltimore City is about 60 percent black. The six-member jury that rejected the civil suit in January 2010 had one black member.

The ruling says a Baltimore Circuit Court administrative judge made a decision on where the trial should be held based on “racially neutral administrative concerns.”

Baltimore City Solicitor George N. Nilson called the decision “a good ruling and a good outcome. We’re pleased.”

The lawyer for the family, A. Dwight Pettit, said he planned to ask the Court of Appeals, the state’s highest court, to hear the case.

Jurors in the civil case refused to grant the family compensatory damages even after the Howard County judge ruled that two of the officers had illegally arrested Gerard because they were not the ones who witnessed the incident.

Jurors, who still had to award damages, decided that even though the arrest was technically wrong, the parents did not deserve to be compensated.

Gerard was arrested outside his East Baltimore home four years ago after an officer saw the boy sitting on the bike with the engine idling. Police handcuffed Gerard and took him to a station house, where he was locked to a bench for 30 minutes before being taken to juvenile detention. Gerard is black; the officers involved are black and white.

Activists protested and then-Mayor Sheila Dixon said publicly that the arrest was wrong and apologized to the family. The furor only grew after police arrested the boy’s mother, Lakisa Dinkins, 11 days later during a drug investigation that she claimed was retaliation for filing a complaint over her son’s detention.

Prosecutors did not follow through on charges against Gerard, nor did they file a criminal case against his mother, deciding that her arrest on charges of interfering with a relative’s drug arrest was not legally sufficient.

Gerard’s family sued the six officers involved in the arrests. Attorneys for the officers requested that the civil trial be moved out of the city because of the outcry. Baltimore Circuit Judge M. Brooke Murdock rejected the bid but then reversed her decision after an exchange between an officer and a dispatcher in which the two joked about the arrest became public.

The Baltimore City Circuit Court administrative judge assigned the case to Howard County. The judge presiding there, Diane O. Leasure, rejected attempts by the family’s lawyer to hold a hearing to determine whether Howard County was the proper place for the trial.

Pettit, the family’s attorney, argued that the “true purpose of the … attempt to remove the case from Baltimore City was to unconstitutionally obtain a more racially favorable venue … to escape an African-American jury.”

Pettit said that should the state’s highest court agree to hear the case, he will argue that allowing a judge to determine venue without input from attorneys violates the Constitution. He also said that moving the trial to Howard because of publicity made no sense, in that the “notoriety in this case was national, in addition to being statewide.”

Copyright © 2011, The Baltimore Sun

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