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Wednesday, May 22, 2024 | Back issues
Courthouse News Service Courthouse News Service

Baltimore Cops Given a Break on Award for Teen

(CN) - Police who beat a 15-year-old and dropped him off in another county in the rain persuaded a Maryland appeals court to let them pay less in damages.

Michael Brian Johnson Jr. sued officers Tyrone Francis, Gregory Hellen and Milton Smith III for false imprisonment, assault, battery and violation of his civil rights.

Johnson claimed that he was called over to a police van in Baltimore on May 4, 2009, at which point Francis commented on his "nice watch."

Smith allegedly told Johnson, "If you look at me the wrong way again, I am going to ram this stick up your ass."

When Johnson replied, "Man, you ain't going to do nothing," Smith allegedly grabbed him, pulled him into the van and started beating him in the legs with his baton. Johnson also claims that Smith choked him and broke the teen's cellphone.

After driving him to Ellicott City, Johnson stated, the officers took his socks and shoes and dumped him into the grass in the rain.

Johnson called 911, and the Howard County Police Department drove him home after the Baltimore Police Department refused to do so, according to the complaint. Johnson sued the officers for $25 million.

At the start of the trial, a judge refused to let the police exclude evidence about Shawnquin Woodland, who was involved in a similar incident just one hour earlier with the same officers.

Woodland said the officers abducted him after he laughed at a joke his friend had made. He testified that Francis said he "wanted to see [Woodland] dead in three years" and wanted to "scrape [him] off the street."

Woodland said that he was dumped by the side of the road, walked home for 45 minutes and had told Johnson what had happened to him before witnessing Johnson's abduction.

Smith testified that Woodland and Johnson were actually working as informants for the officers in an area known for drug activity, and that their abductions were staged so it would not look like they were giving information to the police voluntarily.

The officer denied that Johnson was pushed out of the police van without socks and shoes.

Crediting the teen's story, a jury awarded him $465,000 in compensatory damages and $35,000 in punitive damages.

The judge granted the officers judgment notwithstanding the verdict, however, finding the compensatory damage award excessive and eliminating the $1,000 in punitive damages against Hellen.

A three-judge panel of the Maryland Court of Special Appeals found last week that the lower court properly admitted Woodland's testimony.

"We agree with the circuit court that the evidence of the similar incident involving Mr. Woodland was relevant to appellants' motive and intent, as well as whether Mr. Johnson gave his consent to the officers' actions," Judge Kathryn Grill Graeff wrote for the court.

The court agreed with Officers Francis and Smith, however, that the compensatory damages against them should be reduced to $105,000 and $110,000, respectively. Johnson should not recover for both constitutional and tort claims, the Oct. 6 ruling states.

"The court's instructions to the jury, as well as the closing arguments of counsel," Graeff wrote, "provided no basis for the jury to find a constitutional violation based on anything other than the facts supporting the tort claims."

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