American Bar Association
Media Alerts
Media Alerts - Smith v. Baltimore City Police Department, et al. - Fourth Circuit
Decrease font size
Increase font size
December 7, 2016
  Smith v. Baltimore City Police Department, et al. - Fourth Circuit
First 'Rodeo'? Try Again - Fourth Circuit Reverses Judgment in Favor of Baltimore City Police Department for Evidence Error

Areas of Law: Evidence, First Amendment, Fourth Amendment

Issue Presented: Whether the district court committed reversible error in admitting evidence of appellant's prior arrests in order to properly calculate damages in a police misconduct case.

Brief Summary: The United States Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit held that the district court abused its discretion and committed reversible error by admitting appellant's prior arrest as evidence relevant to her claim for damages. The Fourth Circuit found the evidence was not relevant to damages and was prejudicial to Ms. Smith. Thus, the court reversed and remanded the judgment for a new trial.

Extended Summary: In May 2013, Makia Smith sued the Baltimore City Police Department ("BCPD"); then-BCPD Commissioner Anthony Batts; Officers Church and Campbell; and two other officers at the scene, Officers Pilkerton Jr. and Ulmer (collectively, "Appellees"). Ms. Smith testified that she saw two police officers arresting a teenager while she was driving with her daughter on Harford Road and became concerned when she saw one of the officer's knees pressed against the teen's temple. Ms. Smith stopped, got out of her car, and pulled her cell phone out to record what the officers were doing. Officer Church noticed her videotaping and ran toward her. According to Ms. Smith's testimony, she tried to get back in her car when Officer Church snatched the phone from her hand and stomped it. Ms. Smith testified that Officer Church then grabbed her by her hair and dragged her out of the car. She responded by punching, scratching and kicking him. Ms. Smith testified that she felt three or four other people join in the beating, and then blacked out when someone hit her in the back of her head. While she was being arrested, Ms. Smith remembered asking Officer Church if she could call her mother to pick up her daughter, to which Officer Church responded, "No. Child Protective Services will be here to get [her]."

Contrary to that testimony, Officer Church testified that he received a call for back up at Hartford Road. When he arrived, several teenagers were running through the street while Officer Jackson was attempting to arrest another teen. As Officer Church assisted Jackson in his efforts, he heard tires screech as multiple cars came to a stop. When he looked up, he testified that he saw Ms. Smith's car blocking traffic and saw Smith standing behind her car holding her phone up, as if she was videotaping. Officer Church testified that he told Ms. Smith to pull her car to the side or keep moving. She refused, so Officer Church "quickstepped" toward Ms. Smith and told her to move again. She refused again, so he moved closer and told her this was a traffic stop and asked for her license. At that point, Ms. Smith ran back to her car and Officer Church followed, reaching into her car to try to grab her keys. Officer Church testified that Ms. Smith started kicking, punching, and scratching him, so he reaching into the car and pulled her out. He then handcuffed her and began to arrest her. Ms. Smith was arrested and charged with various offenses, but the charges were eventually dropped via a nolle prosequi disposition.

Ms. Smith filed suit on May 8, 2013, alleging excessive force, § 1983 claims for First and Fourth Amendment violations, battery, and false arrest. On March 9, 2015, Ms. Smith filed a motion in limine to exclude all evidence or discussion of her prior arrests: a) second degree assault in 2005, b) fleeing and eluding in 2006, and c) second degree assault in 2010. None of those arrests resulted in convictions. At trial, the judge admitted evidence of Ms. Smith's prior arrests. The district court explained that the evidence was relevant to determine whether Ms. Smith suffered pain and suffering resulting from her encounter with Officer Church. The judge, in admitting the evidence, instructed the jury that the evidence could not be used to attack Ms. Smith's credibility. On cross-examination, Appellee's counsel asked Smith whether this was her "first rodeo," to which Ms. Smith's counsel objected. The district court overruled the objection, again reasoning that the evidence of the prior arrests may be relevant to determining the amount of emotional damages. Ultimately, the jury returned a verdict in favor of Officers Church and Campbell on all counts. Ms. Smith timely appealed.

The Fourth Circuit reviewed the district court's decision for abuse of discretion in what it classified a "classic he-said, she-said" dispute. The sole issue on appeal was whether the district court committed reversible error in admitting evidence of Smith's prior arrests. The appeal turned on whether Smith's prior arrests, which did not involve struggles with police, made it more or less probable that she suffered emotional damage. The court determined that the district court erred because this evidence was not relevant to damages and was prejudicial to Ms. Smith.

On the relevance question, the Fourth Circuit began its analysis by citing Federal Rule of Evidence ("FRE") 404(b), which prohibits the admission of prior-act evidence, and imposes a four-part test for assessing the admissibility of that evidence. The court noted that admission of prior-act evidence under FRE 404(b) is appropriate to assist the jury in measuring the extent of damages. However, the court explained, the evidence must still have probative value on the question of damages. The court relied heavily on Nelson v. City of Chicago, 810 F.3d 1061 (7th Cir. 2016) in finding that Smith's prior arrests were not relevant to the extent of her damages. Citing Nelson, the court reasoned that Smith's claims were directly related to the underlying encounter with the police, not her feelings toward police generally. This, the court remarked, was evidenced by Smith's testimony during cross-examination that she had "never had an interaction like this with an officer before." Further, the court admonished the Appellee's failure to disprove Smith's testimony by instead asking if this were Smith's "first rodeo," therefore hinting that she had been arrested before. The Fourth Circuit determined that the Appellees' line of questioning was a "clear indication that the evidence was being used to show character and propensity, rather than to demonstrate the extent of her damages." Finally, the court explained that the admission of Smith's prior arrests, which were not at all similar in nature to the underlying case, permitted the jurors to "fill in the gaps and let their imaginations run wild." Accordingly, the Fourth Circuit held the district court abused its discretion by admitting evidence irrelevant to damages for the purpose of credibility, propensity, and character of Smith.

Regarding prejudice, the court found the risk of prejudice from the mention of Smith's prior arrests was "enormous." Citing Nelson, the court remarked that admission of prior-act evidence generally impugns character and makes it difficult for a jury to draw a distinction between an arrest and a legal finding of wrongdoing. The court also noted that a judge could mitigate prejudice by giving a "carefully framed" limiting instruction telling the jurors to only consider the evidence of prior arrests insofar as it relates to determining the extent of a plaintiff's emotional damages. The Fourth Circuit found the district court judge's instructions insufficient and "meager" at best. The court reasoned that, while the district court instructed the jury to consider the testimony on the issue of damages, it did not confine the jury's consideration to that issue or mention "character" or "propensity to break the law," both of which are prohibited by FRE 404(b). That, the Fourth Circuit concluded, was enough to make the prejudice far outweigh the perceived probative value of Smith's prior arrests.

In addition to finding error, the court was tasked with determining whether the error was harmless. Here, the Fourth Circuit could not say with fair assurance the judgment was not substantially swayed by the admission of Smith's prior arrests. The court noted that the main issues in the case hinged on which witness the jury believed, therefore making Smith's credibility and character central to its verdict. Thus, the court reasoned, once the jury heard the evidence of Ms. Smith's prior arrests, it was reasonable for the jury to assume "where there's smoke, there's fire." Moreover, the court explained that the insufficient limiting instruction failed to mitigate the "naturally flowing" prejudice from the questioning. As a result, the Fourth Circuit held that the error was not harmless. Therefore, the court reversed the judgment of the district court and remanded the case for a new trial.

To read the full opinion, click here.

Panel: Keenan, Floyd, and Thacker, Circuit Judges

Argument Date: 09/20/2016

Date of Issued Opinion: 11/01/2016

Docket Number: No. 15-1604

Decided: Reversed and remanded by published opinion

Case Alert Author: Yvette Pappoe, Univ. of Maryland Carey School of Law

Counsel: Lawrence S. Greenberg, GREENBERG LAW OFFICE, Baltimore, Maryland, for Appellant. Suzanne Sangree, BALTIMORE CITY LAW DEPARTMENT, Baltimore, Maryland, for Appellees. ON BRIEF: Zebulan P. Snyder, GREENBERG LAW OFFICE, Baltimore, Maryland, for Appellant. George Nilson, City Solicitor of Baltimore City, William R. Phelan, Chief Solicitor, Glenn Marrow, Chief of Police Legal Affairs Division, BALTIMORE CITY LAW DEPARTMENT, Baltimore, Maryland, for Appellees.

Author of Opinion: Judge Thacker

Case Alert Circuit Supervisor: Professor Renée Hutchins

    Posted By: Renee Hutchins @ 12/07/2016 09:43 AM     4th Circuit  

FuseTalk Enterprise Edition - © 1999-2018 FuseTalk Inc. All rights reserved.

Discussion Board Usage Agreement

Back to Top