A federal judge ruled Tuesday that the Baltimore County Police Department violated the constitutional rights of a man and a woman when officers in 2019 removed them at gunpoint from their Gwynn Oak townhouse without probable cause.
Brought in September of last year by Thomas Allotey and his partner Caia Weaver, the civil lawsuit accused the county and six individual officers of more than a dozen counts of rights violations, including malicious prosecution, gross negligence, excessive use of force and false imprisonment. Police forced the couple out of their home, then tackled, struck, pepper-sprayed and arrested Allotey in February 2019, resulting from patrol officers’ response to a burglary purportedly in progress.
U.S. Magistrate Judge J. Mark Coulson issued a memorandum opinion Tuesday in response to a June request by county defense attorneys asking that the court rule on all counts against them, rather than proceed to trial.
Coulson refused to grant county police qualified immunity related to about 10 other counts, allowing those allegations to move forward.
In the opinion, Coulson wrote “there is no doubt” that county police unlawfully seized Allotey and Weaver when officers, with guns drawn and without a warrant, physically removed them from the townhome the couple and Weaver’s three children had just moved into on “merely” suspicion of burglary.
County attorneys’ defense that the suspicion of a crime justified removing Allotey and Weaver from their home “cannot be supported based merely on reasonable articulable suspicion as Defendants suggest,” Coulson wrote.
In February 2019, court records say police were dispatched to a “burglary in progress” just before 8:30 p.m., responding to a 911 call reporting there were subjects inside a vacant townhouse in the 2500 block of Cheshaire Drive, a rental home into which Allotey, Weaver and her three children were moving that day.
Body camera footage of the arrest shared with The Baltimore Banner shows an officer, identified in court records as Officer S. Becketts, approach the home entrance with a flashlight-equipped handgun pointed at the front door and yell, without knocking, “open the door.”
Another officer, identified as Officer White in court documents, quickly joined Becketts and approached the door with a handgun drawn seconds before Weaver and Allotey opened the door, showing their empty left hands, according to court records. One officer involved in the arrest later testified the plaintiffs posed no obvious threat.
Despite Allotey’s shouts that “we just moved in” and pointing a handgun at him, Becketts ordered Allotey and Weaver to get on the ground, the video shows.
Court records say Becketts, still aiming his gun at Allotey and Weaver, then entered the townhouse and grabbed Allotey’s left wrist, directing him to exit through the front door. Body camera video shows what appears to be a child standing in a doorway inside. Becketts also took hold of Weaver’s left wrist, instructing her to follow Allotey outside, according to court records.
Body camera footage shows the child who first appeared in the doorway had approached the door of the home, where court records say Weaver’s 7-year-old child and 2-year-old twins were present.
Ruling in favor of the plaintiffs, Coulson wrote that when Allotey and Weaver “opened the door of their home at the command of a gun-wielding officer, were ordered on the ground, and were forced outside their house, they were effectively arrested by the officers, and this arrest occurred without the requisite probable cause.”
Coulson’s opinion allows other allegations, including that police used excessive force against Allotey after forcing him from his home, to move ahead to a jury trial.
Court records say that as police took the couple outside, Allotey became agitated with Becketts as the officer held Weaver, and Allotey told him to “get off my girl.” Becketts alleges Allotey grabbed his hand “and squeezed it,” and continued to hold his wrist for “a little while longer” after Becketts released Weaver, according to court documents.
Body camera footage shows Allotey stumble into the yard after another officer intervened and attempted to take Allotey’s arm, although Allotey said he was pushed by Becketts. Outside, Allotey is repeatedly told to put his arms behind his back; about nine seconds later, Becketts deployed pepper spray on Allotey, saying, “I don’t got time for this.”
At least four police officers then got on top of Allotey as he was forced to the ground, body camera footage shows. When Allotey did not follow directions to put his arms behind his back, Becketts struck him with a closed fist more than three times, according to court documents.
At least two officers testified they did not see Allotey commit a crime or assault on an officer at the time Becketts hit him and he was restrained by officers, court records show.
Allotey was transported to the Woodlawn Precinct and charged with second-degree assault on an officer, resisting arrest and “other criminal incident,” according to court records.
According to the opinion, Becketts testified it’s “possible that he had a conversation with another officer discussing the potential need to charge Mr. Allotey to justify the force used against him.”
While Coulson wrote that removing Allotey and Weaver from their home amounted to an illegal arrest, he added that facts remain disputed as they relate to the county’s argument that probable cause existed to charge Allotey after the initial arrest “for resisting arrest, assaulting Officer Becketts in the second degree, and obstructing and hindering.”
A police spokeswoman said Wednesday afternoon that Becketts and four other officers named in the lawsuit are currently on active duty. A police spokesman did not immediately return a request for comment Wednesday evening.
Attorney Cary Hansel, who is representing Allotey and Weaver, said they were looking forward to a jury trial to determine whether police are liable for the remaining allegations.
“It is important for people to know that the courts are available to protect and defend their rights and that the judicial system, and the civil justice system, are here to protect not just the rights of individuals, but also the rights of the public at large,” Hansel said.
“We’re encouraged that the county will take the court’s ruling to heart, and hopefully make changes that avoid other people being unconstitutionally pulled from their homes, and beaten in front of their children,” Hansel added.
Hearing dates have not yet been scheduled in the case.