Baltimore Police Department Sued For Seizing Phones, Cash, And Jewelry From Crime Victims Recovering From Shootings
from the adding-insulting-of-rights-to-shooting-injuries dept
It’s not enough that law enforcement can seize property if it pretends it must be linked to some criminal endeavor, even if the cops can’t be bothered to actually find any direct evidence of said criminal endeavor… or even bring charges against forfeiture victims. It’s not enough that almost anything can be seized when accompanied by criminal charges, which can lead to officers stripmining someone’s residence while serving warrants.
When alleged criminals are difficult to find, sometimes the cops just take stuff from crime victims. Multiple people are suing the Baltimore Police Department for grabbing all sorts of property from shooting victims while they were hospitalized and recovering from their injuries.
It would seem these seizures would be illegal, but the Baltimore PD pretends it’s all about rounding up evidence — even when said “evidence” has nothing to do with the crime being investigated.
On an unusually warm spring evening in the early days of Covid-19, Amber Spencer turned out to celebrate her boyfriend’s birthday at a front stoop cookout in East Baltimore.
Suddenly, bullets flew, hitting her in the chest. When she turned to run, a bullet struck the back of her head and lodged itself in her skull. Then Spencer lost consciousness.
“When I came to, I had been shot in the head. I asked, ‘Where’s my phone?’ and my mom said, ‘The police took it,’” she said.
And once this property is gone, it’s gone. The BPD has no interest in giving up what it’s taken, even if the crime is no longer being investigated.
To date, none of the plaintiffs or their loved ones have been able to get their property back even though none of the four is accused of a crime.
It’s not just phones. It’s whatever crime victims happened to have on them when they were assaulted by actual criminals. This is from the lawsuit [PDF] seeking to have these seizures found unconstitutional.
Plaintiff Damon Gray is a 23-year-old Black man who resides in the City of Baltimore, Maryland. On June 29, 2019, a stranger shot Mr. Gray approximately seven times in the back, neck, and chest while Mr. Gray was walking in and around Catherine Street in the southwest area of Baltimore. Mr. Gray was transported by ambulance to the hospital where BPD officers seized without consent his cell phone, a bracelet, a necklace, and several articles of clothing. These items remain in BPD custody.
While it’s possible the clothing might have some evidentiary relevance in terms of recreating the crime and performing ballistic examinations, it’s difficult to see how a phone adds anything to the evidentiary mix, much less the victim’s jewelry.
This isn’t an aberration.
Plaintiff Amber Spencer is a 27-year-old Black woman who resides in the County of Baltimore, Maryland. Just before midnight on March 20, 2020, a stranger shot Ms. Spencer in the head and chest while she was attending a cookout near 1800 North Chapel Street in Baltimore, Maryland. After the shooting, Ms. Spencer was transported by ambulance to Johns Hopkins Hospital, where BPD officers seized her personal property without her consent, including her cell phone, jeans, shirt, shoes, car key, and approximately $400 in U.S. currency. These items remain in BPD custody.
The same questions are raised here, but with the addition of shoes (the victim was shot in the chest and head), car keys, yet another phone, and $400 in cash that cannot possibly have anything to do with the criminal act being investigated.
Plaintiff Faye Cottman is a 36-year-old Black woman who resides in the City of Baltimore, Maryland. On March 14, 2019, a woman that Ms. Cottman did not know shot Ms. Cottman and her then-11-year-old son in the head while he was playing with his brother at a playground in the Cherry Hill area of Baltimore, Maryland. BPD officers arrived at the scene and seized Ms. Cottman’s personal property without consent, including her jacket, cell phone, wig, and shoes. Despite numerous unsuccessful attempts to reclaim her personal property from BPD, these items remain in BPD custody.
Once again, this appears to be BPD officers taking all of a hospitalized person’s belongings and then refusing to return them.
One more time:
Plaintiff Audrey Carter is a 58-year-old Black woman who resides in the City of Baltimore, Maryland. On June 9, 2018, her son, Dwayne D. Cheeks, was shot and killed in the 2200 Block of Germania Avenue in Baltimore City. BPD officers seized, inventoried, and logged in the Evidence Control Unit (“ECU”) all of Mr. Cheeks’s effects, including his driver’s license, cell phone, a lottery ticket, keys, and cash.
In this case, the victim’s mother was able to talk the BPD into giving her back her son’s cash. That happened in December 2019, a year-and-a-half after officers took control of it. The BPD refused to give back anything else officers took. Worse, the department claimed the rest of “evidence” officers had seized had been destroyed.
Not only did officers take property, but they took advantage of unconscious shooting victims in other ways. Faye Cottman’s phone was warrantlessly searched by officers while she recovered from surgery. The officers claimed the phone was “evidence,” remarked that they were able to search “pretty far back” in her messages to see if she had had any communications with the shooting suspect, and then refused to give the phone back despite closing the investigation in September 2019.
In some cases, victims were not given inventory lists of the property seized or any receipt showing the BDP had taken their property, making it extremely difficult to talk the department into giving them back their stuff. In other cases, officers and detectives stonewalled requests, citing COVID policies or ongoing investigations. Even when investigations concluded, the BPD made no effort to return seized property. And, in the case described above, the BPD destroyed property officers knew was being sought by its previous owners, in direct contravention of their own evidence policies.
The justifications for these seizures don’t work. And if the BPD expects crime victims to believe officers are operating in good faith, it would ensure property is returned as soon as an investigation concludes. It would also seek consent from fully cognizant crime victims, rather than stripping them of their belongings while they undergo surgery or recover from their wounds. And if they really need to see the contents of someone’s phone, they need to obtain warrants supported by probable cause, rather than taking advantage of situations where crime victims can’t actually provide consent to engage in warrantless searches.