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Francis v. Johnson

Court of Special Appeals of Maryland

October 6, 2014


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Argued by: Michael Marshall & Chaz Ball (Schlachman, Belsky & Weiner, PA on the brief) all of Baltimore, MD for Appellant.

Argued by: A. Dwight Pettit & Allan B. Rabineau (William R. Teets, Jr. on the brief) all of Baltimore, MD for Appellee.

Eyler, Deborah S., Graeff, Berger, JJ. Opinion by Graeff, J.


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[219 Md.App. 537] Graeff, J.

This case arises from a complaint that Michael Brian Johnson, Jr. (" Mr. Johnson" ), appellee, through his mother and next friend, Kathryn McDonald, and his father and next friend, Michael Brian Johnson, Sr. (" Michael, Sr." ), filed in the Circuit Court for Baltimore City against three police officers with the Baltimore City Police Department (" BCPD" ) -- Tyrone S. Francis, Milton G. Smith, III, and Gregory Hellen, appellants.[1] The complaint alleged a violation of Articles 24 and 26 of the Maryland Declaration of Rights (Count I), false imprisonment (Count II), battery (Count III), and, assault (Count IV) based on the officers' actions in taking him from Baltimore in a police van, assaulting him, breaking his phone, and then dropping him off in Howard County, in the rain, without shoes, socks or a way home.

A jury found in favor of Mr. Johnson, awarding compensatory damages in the amount of $465,000 and $35,000 in punitive damages. The court subsequently granted, in part, the officers' motion for judgment notwithstanding the verdict (" JNOV" ), striking the $1,000 punitive damages award against Detective Hellen and finding the award of compensatory damages to be excessive.

On appeal, the officers present the following questions for our review, which we have revised, as follows:

[219 Md.App. 538] 1. Did the circuit court err in admitting evidence of a similar incident relating to another individual?
2. Did the circuit court err in failing to further reduce the damages award?
3. Did the circuit court err in allowing the jury to consider the issue of malice?

For the reasons set forth below, we agree that the damages award should be reversed, in part. Otherwise, we affirm the judgment of the circuit court.


The complaint alleged that, on Thursday, May 4, 2009, at approximately 6:30 p.m., Mr. Johnson was in front of his cousins' house at 1648 North Gilmor Street with a group of teenagers. A BCPD van pulled up, and an officer inside the van told the group: " Keep it moving." The teens left the area and walked around the block to a playground. After some time, they returned to 1648 North Gilmor Street.

The BCPD van came back, and the police officer sitting on the passenger side of the van, Detective Hellen, rolled down the window and told Mr. Johnson to come over to the van. Mr. Johnson did so, and the driver of the van, Detective Francis, commented on his " nice watch." A third police officer in the back of the van, Detective Smith, stated: " If you look at me the wrong way again, I am going to ram this stick up your ass." Mr. Johnson responded: " Man you ain't going to do nothing," and he walked away.

Detective Francis then backed up the van, and Detective Smith got out, grabbed Mr. Johnson and pulled him into the back of the van. Detective Smith began hitting him in the legs with his police baton, and he placed his hands around Mr. Johnson's

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neck, choking him. Detective Smith then took Mr. Johnson's cell phone, broke it in half, and threw it out the window. Detective Francis told Detective Smith that he would " keep driving until you say stop." Detective Smith did [219 Md.App. 539] not tell Detective Francis to stop until they had arrived in Ellicott City, Maryland.

Detective Francis told Mr. Johnson to give him his shoes. Detective Hellen told Detective Smith to " take his socks too." Mr. Johnson responded: " Man it is cold and raining," to which Detective Smith responded: " We don't care." Detective Smith then took off Mr. Johnson's socks, opened the door to the van, and pushed Mr. Johnson out onto the grass.

Mr. Johnson walked to a gas station and called 911. The Howard County Police Department (" HCPD" ) responded and contacted the BCPD, asking to meet at the county line to transfer Mr. Johnson. The BCPD responded that it did not do transfers to take people home. The HCPD drove Mr. Johnson back to his home in Baltimore City.

The complaint alleged that the officers were " acting . . . within the scope of their employment as Baltimore City Police Officers" when the foregoing occurred, and they " maliciously, intentionally, carelessly, recklessly, with gross negligence, wantonly, willfully, wrongfully, unreasonably, with reckless disregard for human life; and without justification assaulted, battered, and detained" Mr. Johnson. Mr. Johnson sought compensatory damages in the amount of ten million dollars ($10,000,000) and punitive damages in the amount of fifteen million dollars ($15,000,000).

Trial was held on January 17-25, 2013. At the start of trial, counsel for the officers moved in limine to exclude any reference to the alleged abduction of Shawnquin Woodland,[2] which involved the same officers and occurred approximately one hour prior to the incident with Mr. Johnson. Counsel argued that any such evidence was irrelevant, and that Mr. Johnson was seeking to introduce that evidence to prejudice the jury by attempting to show that " these officers were riding around kidnapping people." Mr. Johnson's counsel responded that the evidence of Mr. Woodland's abduction was [219 Md.App. 540] being offered pursuant to Md. Rule 5-404(b) to show proof of motive and to show that the officers' actions were part of a common scheme.

The court denied the motion in limine. It began by stating that, pursuant to Ruffin Hotel Corporation of Maryland v. Gasper, 418 Md. 594, 625, 17 A.3d 676 (2011), Md. Rule 5-404(b) applied only to evidence offered by the State against a defendant in a criminal case; it did not apply in the civil context. Applying the applicable civil rules, the court addressed whether the evidence was relevant. In that regard, the court stated:

The evidence that's been . . . proffered to me is that an incident that occurred . . . less than an hour prior to the incident in question at a location that was at or near the location of the incident in question. The incident involved all three of the same defendants. They were obviously . . . working as police officers at that time. They were driving the same vehicle, an unmarked van. At that time from what's been proffered to me and what's been shown is that they used their police powers, their . . . presence as police officers to take an individual into custody in the van.

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[T]hereafter the individual is in the van and the officers allegedly . . . make statements to that . . . particular person, exerting their influences, which I assume to be characterized, again, these are allegations at this point in time, of intimidation in an attempt to, in a sense to exert their influence. . . . And after . . . having the person in the van for a period of time, then, in fact, they then mete out the same type of punishment, meaning driving them to a far off location and basically ejecting the person from the van.
It seems to me under [Rule] 5-401 that's clearly going to be relevant evidence. They're clearly and these, the contested issues in this case are fairly obvious, but for instance, the . . . that particular evidence being, I'd . . . say arguably not just a common scheme but part of the same scheme . . . .
[219 Md.App. 541] [T]he same scheme with Mr. Woodland and with Mr. Johnson. So I find that certainly it has relevance among many different things . . . for instance . . . whether or not the defendants acted reasonably and took actions that were not reasonably necessary, whether they acted with or without malice, and whether they acted with or without justification, whether they acted intentionally and knowingly in carrying out this alleged act of intimidation. And clearly also relevant to whether or not the plaintiff, himself, had given his consent.

After finding that the evidence was relevant, the court addressed whether the probative value of the evidence substantially outweighed the danger of unfair prejudice pursuant to Md. Rule 5-403. In that regard, the court stated that the evidence that's going to be provided " goes to the crux of this case, what exactly was the intent of the parties and whether or not the plaintiff consented." Although the evidence " will have substantial impact on this trial, I do find . . . that . . . the probative value significantly outweighs any danger of unfair prejudice."

Mr. Woodland was Mr. Johnson's first witness. He testified that, on May 4, 2009, he was 15 years old. He lived on Pennsylvania Avenue in Baltimore, approximately three blocks from North Gilmor Street, where he sometimes would " hang out" with his friends. That day, Mr. Woodland was outside standing on North Gilmor Street talking to his friend when he observed a blue van with tinted windows pull up. He could see three people in the van. Mr. Woodland was laughing at a joke that his friend had made, and when the van pulled up, the driver of the van, Detective Francis, asked him: " What was funny." Mr. Woodland did not respond. The three officers then got out of the van and asked Mr. Woodland for his name. Again, he did not respond because he " wasn't doing nothing wrong."

The officer sitting in the back of the van, Detective Smith, said that Mr. Woodland " thought [he] was tough" and asked him " what was [he] laughing at." Detective Smith then placed [219 Md.App. 542] Mr. Woodland in handcuffs, told him that he " needed to learn respect," and placed Mr. Woodland in the van. Mr. Woodland went to sit down on the seat, and Detective Smith told him that he " wasn't good enough to sit in a seat," and he " had to sit on the floor." When the van drove away, Detective Francis stated that he wanted to " see [Mr. Woodland] dead in three years," and he wanted to " scrape [him] off the street." Detective Francis and Detective Smith joked that they were going to take Mr. Woodland to Ocean City, strip him naked, and take him to the train tracks and leave him there. Detective Hellen, who was sitting in the

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front passenger seat of the van, did not say anything.

After approximately twenty-five minutes of driving, the van slowed down. Detective Smith took off the handcuffs, and without waiting for the van to come to a complete stop, pushed Mr. Woodland out of the van near a group of men standing on the corner, yelling " thanks for the information." Mr. Woodland had not given the officers any information. Mr. Woodland, who had no money and no cell phone, got up and began walking back to West Baltimore. It took him approximately 45 minutes to walk home.

When Mr. Woodland got back to North Gilmor Street, he saw Mr. Johnson and Myron Evans. Mr. Woodland told Mr. Johnson and Mr. Evans what had happened to him.

Sometime thereafter, the same blue van with the same officers came through North Gilmor Street again and drove by Mr. Woodland and his friends. The van stopped, and Detective Francis said that Mr. Woodland was a " fast motherfucker." Mr. Woodland walked away down the street.

Mr. Woodland later saw the van stopped and the officers yelling at Mr. Johnson. Mr. Johnson walked away from the van, but Detective Smith got out from the back of the van, grabbed Mr. Johnson's shirt, and pulled him into the van. The van drove away. Mr. Woodland did not speak to Mr. Johnson again until the next day. He did not speak to any police officer about the incident until a few weeks later, when they contacted him.

[219 Md.App. 543] Mr. Johnson testified on his own behalf. On May 4, 2009, Mr. Johnson was 15 years old. That day, after school, he went home, dropped his books off, changed his clothes, took his father's cell phone from his house, and went to his cousin's house at 1648 North Gilmor Street. Mr. Johnson was playing video games with his cousin, Myron Evans, when they heard people outside talking. They went outside to see what was going on and saw Mr. Woodland walking down the street. Mr. Woodland looked " sluggish and lost . . . dehydrated." When Mr. Woodland reached Mr. Johnson and Mr. Evans, they had a conversation that made Mr. Johnson " wonder what they was going to do next or was they going to come back." At the time of the conversation, Mr. Johnson noticed a blue van with tinted windows in the vicinity. The van pulled over, and the driver of the van, Detective Francis, stated to Mr. Woodland that " he was a fast motherfucking walker." The van then pulled away, and Mr. Woodland left.

A short while later, as Mr. Johnson and Mr. Evans were sitting in front of 1648 North Gilmor Street, Mr. Johnson observed the van, followed by a white Nissan, driving through the neighborhood. The third or fourth time the van and the Nissan drove down the block, one of the occupants of the van told Mr. Johnson to " keep it moving." Mr. Johnson and Mr. Evans then walked to a nearby playground. Corey Taylor, another friend, was at the playground.

While Mr. Johnson, Mr. Evans, and Mr. Taylor were at the playground, they saw the van again, so they went back to North Gilmor Street to try to " get away from them." When they got to North Gilmor Street, the van came back around the corner and pulled up next to Mr. Johnson and Mr. Evans. The van stopped, and Detective Francis stated to Mr. Johnson: " [Y]ou in the black, come here." Mr. Johnson walked to the van. Detective Francis told Mr. Johnson to " stick [his] head in the window," and when Mr. Johnson complied, he saw Detective Smith in the back of the van " swinging a nightstick." Detective

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Smith asked Mr. Johnson " what [he] was looking at" and told him if he " ever look[ed] at [him] wrong again," he would " ram this stick up your ass." Mr. Johnson walked away [219 Md.App. 544] from the van, telling Detective Smith " you ain't going to do nothing." As Mr. Johnson walked away, the van backed up and Detective Smith got out, grabbed Mr. Johnson by the collar, threw him in the ...

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