Why Freddie Ran: A Fatal Injury in Police Custody Highlights Baltimore's History of Bogus Busts

Jacob Sullum
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Posted: May 06, 2015 12:01 AM
Why Freddie Ran: A Fatal Injury in Police Custody Highlights Baltimore's History of Bogus Busts

When the cops chasing Freddie Gray caught up with him, they had a problem: He had not done anything illegal. They solved that problem the way cops often do: They plucked a charge out of thin air.

The cops probably would not have gotten into trouble for making an illegal arrest if Gray had not died due to a spinal injury he suffered in the back of a police van. Gray's death has shined a light on the way police officers abuse their arrest powers to impose arbitrary punishment, a practice that helps explain the anger on display in Baltimore last week.

Of the various criminal charges that Marilyn Mosby, the state's attorney for Baltimore, announced on Friday in connection with Gray's death, the most unusual and revealing was false imprisonment. Mosby said Lt. Brian Rice, together with Officers Edward Nero and Garrett Miller, "failed to establish probable cause for Mr. Gray's arrest as no crime had been committed."

Rice, Nero and Miller arrested Gray for carrying a switchblade, which Maryland defines as a knife with "a blade that opens automatically by hand pressure applied to a button, spring or other device in the handle of the knife." Since Gray's perfectly legal folding knife did not fit that description, he plainly was not guilty of the crime that was the pretext for hauling him away in handcuffs.

Baltimore has a history of such trumped-up charges. A 2006 class-action lawsuit backed by the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) and the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) cited "a pattern and practice" of bogus arrests for minor, often vaguely defined offenses such as loitering, trespassing, impeding pedestrian traffic, disorderly conduct, disturbing the peace and failure to obey a police command.

Of the 76,497 people arrested by Baltimore police without warrants in 2005, the lawsuit noted, prosecutors declined to charge 25,293 -- nearly one out of three. According to the state's attorney, those cases were "legally insufficient."

The arrests nevertheless had real consequences for people who were publicly kidnapped by armed agents of the state, strip-searched and placed in "small, filthy and overcrowded cells" for hours or days. In addition to the humiliation, degradation and loss of liberty inflicted by this process, the ACLU and NAACP noted, victims of illegal arrests "may lose their jobs or be denied job opportunities in the future as a result of the permanent stigma of having a criminal charge on their record."

The named plaintiffs in the case included Tyrone Braxton and Evan Howard, two friends who spent 36 and 54 hours behind bars, respectively, after police accused them of loitering and impeding traffic; Donald Wilson, who was strip-searched and held for five hours, although he was never told what crime he had supposedly committed; and Aaron Stoner and Robert Lowery, two visitors from Pennsylvania who were arrested for failure to obey an order to stop loitering, strip-searched and locked up for 17 hours. "For innocent victims of these arrest practices," the lawsuit observed, "being unlawfully arrested can be a life-changing event."

Under a settlement reached in 2010, the Baltimore Police Department (BPD) agreed to change performance evaluation policies that encouraged false arrests and introduce safeguards aimed at ensuring that cops have probable cause when they take people into custody. Two years later, the ACLU complained that the BPD was "failing to comply" with the agreement. It noted that "BPD officers did not or could not justify arrests for quality of life offenses in at least 35 percent of the cases examined" by an independent auditor.

As demonstrated by Austin cops who arrest activists for recording police encounters and New York cops who arrest pot smokers for publicly displaying marijuana after tricking them into revealing it, this problem is not limited to Baltimore. But given the city's history of hassling young black men for imaginary offenses, it is not hard to understand why Freddie Gray ran when he saw the cops.