Baltimore illegally took partial police settlement from woman, judge says

The city of Baltimore is ordered to pay a woman over $30K after they illegally took half of her police settlement, a federal judge ruled.

A federal judge has ruled the city of Baltimore must issue over $30K back to a woman after keeping half of a settlement she was awarded after an incident involving police officers.

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The Baltimore Sun reports that the city committed an “illegal act” when it took $31,500 from Ashley Overbey Underwood after she settled a lawsuit and then spoke out publicly about allegations that police beat her. The judge ruled she must be refunded the full amount plus 6% annual interest.

“The seeming inference is that their illegal act should not be undone simply because no one thought, or even suspected, it was illegal at the time,” wrote U.S. District Judge Deborah K. Chasanow. “Just as ‘strong public interests’ render the clause unenforceable, those interests counsel against allowing the City to keep the fruits of such improper enforcement.”

In 2012, Underwood accused three police officers of beating, tasing, and verbally abusing her, resulting in her arrest, after she called 911 to report a burglary, according to the Sun. The case was settled in 2014 for the full amount of $63K. After the original settlement, the woman responded to accusations that she initiated the arrest in order to get money and shared her story on the internet. The city then held half of her settlement, claiming she violated a “non-disparagement clause” in a gag order.

In 2019, the Baltimore City Council unanimously passed a bill that banned gag orders in cases involving city settlements for police brutality and discrimination cases. Following that decision, the Fourth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that the city’s use of them was unconstitutional.

After the judge ruled in favor of Overbey Underwood to be repaid, The American Civil Liberties Union and the Baltimore Brew, who both joined the lawsuit, called the order a step forward for free speech, especially for Black people as police violence and anti-racism continues to dominate national conversations.

“It’s been hurtful to see and hear so many horrible things that happened,” Overbey Underwood said in a statement released by the ACLU of Maryland according to the Baltimore Sun. She continues, “But at the end of the day, it’s been amazing that we as a people stood together and was able to stand up to the bullies. If you have anything unjustly done to you, don’t give up, no matter how big that bully is.”

Baltimore City Solicitor Dana Moore said the city will not appeal the decision.

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“This order finally brings about well-deserved resolution for Ms. Underwood, who, throughout this long ordeal, never wavered in her commitment to fundamental free speech rights, notwithstanding the City’s bullying and thievery,” said Deborah Jeon, Legal Director for the ACLU of Maryland to the Baltimore Sun.

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