Woman Sues Balto. Co. Police, Claims Assault, Rights Violations

… Plaintiff in federal lawsuit was recording arrest in Towson …


By Arthur Hirsch, The Baltimore Sun

6:24 PM EST, December 30, 2011

A Baltimore City woman has filed a lawsuit in federal court against Baltimore County, its Police Department, several officers and officials, claiming she was assaulted and her constitutional rights violated when she was arrested while recording an encounter with police near a Towson bar two years ago.

Venus C. Johnson, 30, who lives in North Baltimore, argues in the 18-count suit seeking $1 million in compensatory and unspecified punitive damages that she “suffered serious physical injuries” and emotional trauma when she was arrested on misdemeanor charges that were eventually dropped. She video recorded part of the altercation on her cell phone, which was taken and later returned by Baltimore County police.

The suit filed on Dec. 15 in U.S. District Court in Baltimore names an array of defendants, including the Police Department, police chief, Towson precinct captain, four police officers, the county executive and County Council. Johnson aims her accusations not just at the officers themselves, but at authorities who shaped policies under which the officers worked.

“Beyond compensating Ms. Johnson for the battery, robbery, kidnapping, and the deprivations of her rights,” the suit argues, “she seeks redress for the unlawful municipal policies” pursued by the defendants.

Baltimore County police spokeswoman Detective Cathy Batton said Friday that county officials do not comment on pending lawsuits.

In a brief phone call Friday, Johnson said she wanted to talk with her lawyer before commenting for this story. Her attorney, Barry R. Glazer of Baltimore, said Friday that Johnson was recording officers “roughing up her friend,” Michael A. Smith, a 32-year-old Baltimore man who was charged with assault.

The suit filed by Johnson, who Glazer said works as a health programs manager for a local government, is the latest Maryland case of a citizen claiming a legal right to record police in action. The incident has racial overtones: Both Johnson and Smith are black and were accused by police of hurling racial slurs at officers involved in the arrest, all four of whom are white.

In June, the American Civil Liberties Union threatened to sue the Baltimore City Police Department in the case of a man who the organization claimed was detained wrongfully and had videos deleted from his cellphone after he recorded officers arresting a friend at the 2010 Preakness. Court records do not show that such a suit has been filed.

A year ago, a Harford County Circuit Court judge ruled against prosecutors for charging a man for recording his own traffic stop.

Johnson and Smith were arrested at about 2 a.m. on Dec. 27, 2009, near Lil’ Dicky’s Saloon in the 400 block of York Road. Johnson said she went there to pick up Smith, who had called her for a lift home. According to her account, her friend got into an altercation with a bar employee, who called 911.

Johnson said in the suit that as she and her friend left the bar and were walking south on York Road toward her car, they were “accosted” by police.

The lawsuit disputes the police report’s account of what took place after that. In the account written by Officer Daniel Burns, one of the four officers named in the lawsuit, Smith did not cooperate with police, did not present identification when asked and “wrestled” with two officers who were trying to place his hands behind his back.

The report says Johnson “began to scream and holler” at officers, who told her to leave. She then drew out a cell phone and began recording the police, the report says. Burns wrote that he confiscated the phone as “case evidence.”

The report says Johnson was warned she would be arrested if she continued screaming and she struggled with police when they tried to take her into custody. She “flopped to the ground but continued to yell and cause a disturbance,” the report says.

The suit accuses Burns of “suddenly attacking Ms. Johnson and stealing her cellular phone.” The video, which runs 42 seconds, shows Johnson was saying nothing to police in the moments before an officer is seen approaching and taking the phone.

The lawsuit argues that Johnson was not screaming and was “exercising her First Amendment right” to record the police.

Court records show she was charged with three misdemeanors: disorderly conduct, resisting arrest and failure to obey a lawful order. All charges were dropped in June 2010.

The charges against Smith — second-degree assault, resisting arrest and failure to obey an order — were placed on an inactive docket by the county District Court in 2010.

Johnson claims in the suit that she “suffered serious physical injuries to her right shoulder and right wrist.” Since the encounter, she says she has experienced “nervousness, anxiety, sleepless nights, fear of police, fear of strangers, and general malaise.”


Copyright © 2011, The Baltimore Sun

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