On February 19, 2010, Maryland’s highest court issued its decision in the case of Houghton v. Forrest, holding that a Baltimore City police officer cannot claim immunity from suit for intentional acts of assault, battery, false arrest and false imprisionment. This ruling is an important victory for Maryland citizens who are subjected to these types of harm at the hands of a public official.
In the Houghton case, the officer had witnessed a drug sale in Baltimore City while monitoring a security camera feed. One of the participants in the drug deal was a woman wearing a black jacket, dark jeansand was carrying a red umbrella. Houghton instructed another officer to arrest the alleged drug sale participants. He lost sight of the woman during the arrest. While continuing to scan the video feed, Houghton saw a woman standing at a bus stop, wearing different colored pants and jacket, but carring a red umbrella. Even though this woman clearly did not match the description of the woman first identified in the video, Houghton instructed the officer to arrest her. She was evenutually released from custody and subsequently filed suit against Houghton and the Baltimore City Police Department, alleging both negligence and a variety of intentional torts. A jury awarded her more than $180,000.00 in damages. The officer appealed the verdict, arguing that he was immune from suit for intentional tort and because there was not sufficient evidence presented that he had acted with malice, which he arguedis a necessary element to prove intentional harm.
The Court of Special Appeals, Maryland’s intermediate appellate court, disagreed with Houghton, finding that a public official is not immune from suit for intentional torts, but also found that there was not sufficient evidence presented to find the officer acted with malice. Both parties appealed this decision
The Court of Appeals made clear in its decision that public officials, like this police officer, cannot seek immunity from suit if their actions are found to be intentional. The Court did not specifically decide the issue as to whether sufficient evidence was presented to prove malice because the Court found that under the Local Government Tort Claims Act, the government is responsible to pay any judgment against the officer so long as the judgment did not include punitive damages, which requires a finding of malice. In this case, the jury did not award punitive damages.
This case is important for the citizens of Maryland. Victims of police brutality and misconduct may recover damages from these officers without the possiblity that the officers will try to hide behind the “immunity shield”.