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Critics assail Baltimore police "gag orders"

Crime & Justiceby Mark Reutter7:15 pmOct 7, 20190

City Council tentatively passes bill to end police “gag orders”

Tonight’s unanimous vote suggests that the bill can sustain a veto by Mayor Jack Young. ACLU hails the Council’s action.

Above: A protester of police settlement “gag orders” stands outside of City Hall last year. (Fern Shen)

The City Council has tentatively approved a bill to end Baltimore’s use of gag orders in police misconduct settlements.

Bill 19-0409 was approved tonight on second reader by a unanimous vote (minus one absent member, 10th District’s Edward Reisinger).

A final vote is expected at the Council’s next meeting, which is considered a pro-forma matter for most bills.

If approved, the measure would go to Mayor Bernard C. “Jack” Young for his signature or veto. Based on tonight’s vote, the bill appears to be “veto-proof” with enough Council votes to override a mayoral veto.

The bill was introduced in July by Council President Brandon M. Scott and Councilwoman Shannon Sneed after the Fourth Court of Appeals ruled that the city’s use of non-disparagement agreements (NDAs) in police settlements was unconstitutional “hush money.”

The case was brought in 2017 by the American Civil Liberties Union of Maryland on behalf of Ashley Overbey Underwood and this website.

“This is a bill Baltimore desperately needs,” says ACLU field organizer Tre Murphy.

The ACLU hailed the bill’s passage tonight. “This is a bill Baltimore desperately needs,” said field organizer Tre Murphy.

“We are hopeful the mayor will sign it into law, so the world will see that Baltimore is no longer an outlier when it comes to free speech and a free press, and is committed to reform.”

The mayor’s spokesman, Lester Davis, responded to the second reader vote by telling The Brew, “The mayor understands where the Council is coming from and their thinking on this issue, which is very similar to where he sits.”

Opposed by Solicitor

The main source of friction is the opposition to the bill by City Solicitor Andre M. Davis, who says the law department is “in sole charge” of handling legal proceedings and documents.

The bill, Davis argues, illegally infringes on the department’s right to include NDAs – or “gag orders” to critics – in misconduct lawsuits. “The City Charter gives no room for the Mayor or City Council by ordinance to determine how actions and proceedings of a legal nature are to be handled by the city,” Davis has written.

The Appeals Court said Baltimore’s NDAs abridge the First Amendment rights of police victims to speak freely about their experiences and impede the press’ ability to interview injured parties.

In addition to barring NDAs in settlement agreements, Bill 19-0409 requires the law department to post online all civil actions filed in state and federal courts involving police misconduct and unlawful discrimination.

The measure further calls on Davis’ department to report quarterly to the Council any misconduct lawsuits in which proposed monetary damages exceed $100,000.

The Young administration is bracing for a flood of citizen lawsuits arising from the false arrests, planting of evidence and other illegal activities exposed by the Gun Trace Task Force indictments and trial.

Last month, State’s Attorney Marilyn J. Mosby dropped 800 criminal cases tainted by “the wrongful acts” of now-jailed members of the once-elite unit.

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