BALTIMORE (CN) — Blaming police corruption in Baltimore for the death of a father of a 10, a family claims in federal court that the 86-year-old patriarch died in a car crash because officers were preoccupied with planting drugs at the scene.
The firm Azrael Franz brought the Aug. 2 complaint in Baltimore on behalf of the nine living children of Elbert Davis Sr., as well as a son of the 10th child, who is deceased.
They say Davis had been driving with his wife on April 28, 2010, when they were struck by a car driven by Umar Burley, who was fleeing members of the city police department’s Gun Trace Task Force.
Though Burley spent seven years in prison on drug and vehicular-manslaughter charges, evidence that the police officers had planned to rob him and planted drugs on him to cover their corrupt conduct led a judge to vacate that conviction earlier this year.
Burley has since filed a lawsuit seeking $40 million.
In a press conference Friday, attorneys for the Davis family said the city can’t escape liability.
“These officers were working under color of law, with badges, making sometimes 50 stops a night,” said Judson Lipowitz. “This implicated the whole chain of command, up to and including the mayor.”
The Davis family’s filing comes a week after Baltimore City Solicitor Andre Davis brought a suit to determine whether the city should pay legal damages stemming from the corruption of the eight Gun Trace Task Force officers, all of who are now in prison serving sentences from seven to 25 years. “Maryland courts have never been called upon to explain what it means to act within the scope of your employment,” he told the Baltimore Sun.
Lipowitz’s colleague John Solter Jr. also spoke to reporters Friday. “We believe that the department was well aware of the regular constitutional violations committed by this unit, and the practices were accepted,” Solter said. “They wanted to get guns off the street; they didn’t care that people’s rights were violated.”
In their suit against Baltimore, the Davis family says they are focused both on the actions at the scene of the crash, and the police department’s “pattern and practice,” documented by the Department of Justice, of depriving people of their constitutional rights by, for example, stopping and searching black men in cars randomly on suspicion of drug dealing.
The department settled charges related to such allegations raised by the Justice Department two years ago.
Baltimore’s Gun Trace Task Force operated as a criminal gang, robbing drug dealers and those they suspected of dealing drugs, selling drugs and falsely claiming overtime. More than 100 criminal cases they worked on have been overturned, and their victims have filed several lawsuits seeking compensation. “This is the one case that an innocent man was killed, and we believe it’s different from the others,” Solter said, flanked by the daughters and sons of the deceased Davis. “When they learned that they were lied to all these years, their grief turned to anger.”
One of the named defendants is Estate of Sean Matthew Suiter, a city cop who was shot in the head last fall while investigating a murder. Suiter’s death prompted a virtual lock-down of a city neighborhood, but police never developed a suspect in the killing, leading some to speculate that the officer took his own life to avoid testifying before the federal grand jury investigating the task force while still preserve life insurance payouts for his family. A special review board is supposed to release its findings in Suiter’s death in the coming days.
Federal prosecutors have said Suiter was not a target of the grand jury.
“We believe that the evidence will show that he wasn’t naive to the illegal reason for the stop,” Lipowitz said.
Burley’s lawyer has alleged that Suiter was at the wheel of the police vehicle that rammed Burley’s car, and that he emerged from the vehicle in plain clothes with a ski mask on, leading Burley to think he was being robbed, which caused him to flee in his car.
With two police cars in pursuit, Burley later ran a stop sign and struck Davis’ car.
Shirley Johnson, one of Davis’ daughters, said the dirty cops compounded their crimes. “Instead of attending to my father, who was trapped in the car, they were busy planting drugs on Umar Burley,” she said at the press conference. “The police report said they were following all of the rules of the department, flashing lights, driving the speed limit. It was a lie.
“It took us over seven years to find out what really happened,” Johnson said. “When I think of it I get angry all over again.”