(CN) – The Baltimore state’s attorney who blamed police for the death of Freddie Gray has immunity from five officers’ civil claims, the Fourth Circuit ruled Monday in a resounding vindication of prosecutorial authority.
Officer Edward Michael Nero, Officer Garrett Edward Miller, Lieutenant Brian Scott Rice, Officer William Porter and Sergeant Alicia brought their suits against State’s Attorney Marilyn Mosby in 2016 while the charges against them were still pending.
Last year, nearly six months after prosecutors dropped the case without a single conviction, U.S. District Judge Marvin Garbis refused to dismiss the group’s malicious-prosecution and defamation claims.
Reversing that decision Monday, a three-judge panel of the Fourth Circuit found it unjustified to deny Mosby immunity.
“The people of Baltimore elected Mosby to deliver justice,” Chief U.S. Circuit Judge Roger Gregory wrote for the court in Richmond, Va. “A young African-American man had been killed in the custody of the Baltimore City Police Department, and the city was rioting. Pursuing justice — i.e., using the legal system to reach a fair and just resolution to Gray’s death — was not a political move. It was Mosby’s duty. And Mosby was well within her role to tell the people of Baltimore, and the nation, that she was carrying out that duty. That Mosby may gain some future career advantage for doing her job well does not take her actions outside the scope of her employment.”
Gray’s death at age 25 came a week after sustaining a critical spinal cord injury while being transported to the police station by arresting officers. Riots and widespread protests broke out following Gray’s April 27, 2015, funeral — coming to a conclusion only after the governor called in the National Guard.
Judge Gregory emphasized in the ruling Monday, however, that none of the officers could “negate that Mosby had probable cause to charge them.”
“And the officers’ contention that Mosby acted outside the scope of her employment by telling the public that she would pursue justice borders on absurd,” he added.
“Perhaps to the officers’ chagrin,” the 42-page opinion concludes, “they must accept that they are subject to the same laws as every other defendant who has been prosecuted and acquitted. Those laws clearly bar the type of retaliatory suits that the officers brought here. The District Court therefore erred in allowing their claims to proceed.”
Gregory also noted that Baltimore is one of many jurisdictions where prosecutors are authorized to independently investigate “cases of criminal behavior by police.”
“Per the officers’ theory, whenever a prosecutor takes on one of these cases, her actions — even those intimately tied to the judicial phase — no longer enjoy absolute immunity,” Gregory wrote. “This approach torpedoes the fundamental premise of absolute prosecutorial immunity: ensuring a fair, impartial criminal justice system, in which prosecutors have the independence to hold even powerful wrongdoers accountable without fear of vexatious litigation. And we refuse to sanction it. When determining whether a prosecutor is entitled to absolute immunity, we look at the specific act challenged, not the prosecutor’s preceding acts.”
While Mosby originally charged six officers with Gray’s death, Officer Caesar Goodson Jr. was not a party to the underlying action. Goodson sued the Baltimore Police Department last year in Circuit Court for recommending his termination.
In the Fourth Circuit appeal, Mosby was represented by Karl Aram Pothier with the Office of the Maryland Attorney General. The officers were represented by Andrew James Toland III and Brandy Ann Peeples.
In its report on the ruling Monday, the Baltimore Sun quoted Mosby as applauding the ruling.
“I support the court’s opinion that the people of Baltimore elected me to deliver one standard of justice for all, and that using the legal system to reach a fair and just resolution to Gray’s death was not a political move, but rather it was my duty,” she said in an email.
The Sun said attorneys for the officers could not be reached for comment, but it quoted a fiery statement from the president of the police officers’ union.
“She maliciously prosecuted the officers and abused the authority of her office because if she would have looked at the evidence, she would have realized that she didn’t have the evidence to support the charges that she placed on those six officers,” Lt. Gene Ryan said of Mosby.
It is not yet known whether the officers will try to have the Supreme Court reinstate their case.