BALTIMORE (CN) — Two men who fled from unmarked police claim in a federal complaint that they spent years in prison because officers planted drugs on them to avoid liability for an innocent bystander’s death in the chase.
Filed on Wednesday by attorneys at the firm Silverman Thompson, the case is the latest fallout from the federal prosecution of Baltimore’s Gun Trace Task Force.
Brent Matthews and Umar Burley, whose criminal cases were vacated late last year in the wake of the federal investigation of the once-elite police unit, say in their suit that police supervisors knew or should have known that Gun Trace Task Force members were robbing people and planting evidence.
Matthews served almost four years. Burley was sentenced to 15 and served more than seven before his release last August.
The Gun Trace Task Force is part of a tradition of elite police units with names such as “Flex Squads” and “SET Units” whose members earn a reputation for excessive force, civil rights violations and outright crimes.
Because of previous scandals, according to Matthews and Burley’s complaint, “BPD was on notice of at least the potential for abuse associated with officers who had the wide latitude to police in a manner similar to that of flex squad officers.”
Matthews was with Burley in the latter man’s car on April 28, 2010, the complaint explains, when two unmarked police cars blocked them in, and four masked men jumped out with guns drawn.
Fearing they were being robbed or kidnapped, Burley says he hit the gas. With the officers in pursuit, Burley’s Acura eventually collided with a Monte Carlo driven by a 85-year-old Elbert Davis, who died.
Burley and Matthews bailed from the wreckage and were caught soon after.
Because Burley’s car was clean, however, the officers allegedly planted heroin at the scene to give them a pretext for trying to initiate the stop.
Facing decades in federal prison, Burley and Matthews both ended up pleading guilty in what their lawsuit terms “a Hobson’s choice.”
Federal investigators later detailed the incident in the criminal case against Wayne Jenkins, who as supervisor of the GTTF was convicted of racketeering and sentenced last week to 25 years in prison.
Along with Jenkins, the suit names the estate of Sean Suiter as a defendant.
Just one day before he was scheduled to testify in front of a federal grand jury investigating the GTTF, Suiter was shot in the head with his own gun while investigating a murder in West Baltimore. Suiter’s death has been investigated as a homicide, but no suspects have been identified.
Then-police Commissioner Kevin Davis said Suiter was not a target of the grand jury, and evidence in the GTTF case indicated that Jenkins, who discovered the drugs in Burley’s car, was not aware they had been planted. But another GTTF member testified that he used to steal money with Suiter.
The Baltimore Police did not immediately respond to an email seeking comment.