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Fourth Circuit Reverses Verdict for Police Officers in Excessive Force Case

by Christopher Zoukis

The United States Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit has reversed a jury verdict in favor of two police officers who allegedly battered and unlawfully arrested a woman for filming their arrest of a juvenile.

The incident took place March 8, 2012 in Baltimore, Maryland. Makia Smith testified at trial that when she saw a Baltimore police officer holding a juvenile down on the ground with a knee pressed against the boy's temple, she pulled out her phone and held it up as if filming the altercation. Officer Nathan Church approached her and she ran for her car. Church then pulled Smith from her car by the hair, smashed her cellphone and threatened to knock her teeth out. During the altercation, in which three or four other officers participated, Smith testified that she was hit in the back of the head and knocked unconscious. When she came to and asked to call her mother to come pick up her 2-year-old, Officer Church taunted, "No. Child Protective Services will be here to get your daughter."

Officer Church testified to a completely different series of events. Church stated that Smith interfered with an arrest and was belligerent and profane, telling the officers, "I'm not moving [shit]. [Fuck] y'all." When Church initiated a "traffic stop" and asked for Smith's license, she resisted and a melee ensued. Church claimed that he was hit with an unidentified hard object.

When all was said and done, Smith was arrested and charged with a litany of crimes, including assault on Church and resisting arrest. The charges were ultimately dropped, and Smith initiated a federal lawsuit against the officers and the City of Baltimore.

The case went to trial, and a jury found for the officers. At issue on appeal was a decision by the trial judge to allow testimony about Smith's prior arrests into evidence. The officers claimed that this was relevant to Smith's damages. Smith objected, arguing that her prior arrests were totally irrelevant to this arrest, and that this evidence was nothing more than an attempt to attack her credibility with the jury.

The Fourth Circuit agreed with Smith and reversed the verdict, remanding for a new trial.

"This appeal turns on whether the fact that Smith was arrested three times before -- with no evidence that her prior arrests involved a struggle of any kind with police and with no convictions stemming from the arrests -- makes it more or less probable that she suffered emotional damages in the case at hand, where the police allegedly cursed at her, beat her, and threatened to turn her child over to Child Protective Services," wrote the court. "We think not, and indeed the admission of that fact could easily have tipped the scales in what the district court itself called a 'tough case' that boiled down to a classic he-said, she-said dispute." See:  Smith v. Baltimore City Police Department, Case No. 15-1604 (4th Cir. 2016).

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Related legal case

Smith v. Baltimore City Police Department