By Stephen Janis and Taya Graham, Special to the AFRO
William James was driving on Hillen Road with his girlfriend in April 2016 when a trio of Baltimore police officers pulled him over. They ordered him out of the car and gave him a daunting choice: produce a gun or tell them where they could find one.
When James refused to do either, Sergeant Wayne Jenkins, Marcus Taylor, and Jemell Rayam, all members of the now disgraced Gun Trace Task Force, huddled in what an attorney representing the city described as a circle. Seconds later, a gun appeared.
“This, here, is your gun now,” Jenkins is purported to have said.
Members of the Gun Trace Task Force. (Courtesy Photos)
James was charged with six felonies. He spent seven months in jail released only after Jenkins, Rayem, and Taylor, along with four other officers, were charged by federal prosecutors with crimes including robbery, drug dealing, and extortion. He lost his job, and his home, according to his lawyer.
In April of this year he was murdered, a case that remains unsolved.
The city does not dispute the allegations of false arrest, imprisonment, and an illegal stop made by James in the lawsuit. However, the government that gave the GTTF guns and badges is refusing to pay the roughly $100k judgement against them. A move that prompted a contentious motion hearing in Baltimore City Circuit Court before Judge Jeannie Hong Sept. 23.
“This is illegal conduct,” argued Justin Conroy, an attorney for the city. “Illegal conduct is never within the scope of the employment.”
Lawyers representing the city made the argument that the actions of the officers were secondary to the mission of the police department, meaning the plaintiff’s only recourse was to collect from the officers themselves.
“They were mobsters in uniform,“ Conroy said. “They were predators. They were hunting for someone to plant a gun on.”
But plaintiffs countered the officers were working with the blessing of the department, and the city should have to pay the judgement.
They were driving Baltimore city police vehicles, they were wearing uniforms, and badges when they were (doing) what they were doing under the authority of the BPD,” countered Mandy Miliman who represents James’ estate.
Generally, the city indemnifies officers who are subject to lawsuits as part of their collective bargaining agreement with the police union. But an exception in the state law governing municipal liability gives the city legal wiggle room.
A municipal government can’t be held liable for activity deemed outside the scope of the employment. And if the union doesn’t protest, then it’s the officers themselves who have to pay, an unlikely prospect for a group serving anywhere from seven to 25 years in federal prison.
City Solicitor Andre Davis says the onus is on the plaintiffs to prove the officers were working in their capacity as cops.
“We are relying on the inability of the plaintiffs to prove they were acting within the scope of their employment,” Davis told the AFRO.
But lawyers representing James’ estate said the reliance on that argument would set a dangerous precedent for a city with a history of police misconduct.
“The more criminal, the more mobster, the more thuggish the less likely the city will have to pay,” said Miliman.
The case could be critical to how much the city has to pay for the GTTF’s misdeeds. While there is a cap for lawsuits filed in state court of $400,000 per victim and $500,000 per incident, no such barrier exists for federal cases. Currently the city is facing roughly 20 lawsuits tied to GTTF actions, split between both federal and state courts.
The proceedings have also attracted the attention of key leaders in Annapolis.
State Senator Jill Carter said she was concerned that the city’s legal position was part of the pattern of trying to cover-up the culpability of the GTTF superiors, who have largely emerged from the scandal unscathed.
“I really want to know who was in charge and how they were held responsible, I think letting them off the hook will only lead to more problems down the road,” Carter told the AFRO.
Judge Hong said she would rule on the case within two weeks.