A federal judge has ruled that the city of Baltimore must pay more than $31,500 to Ashley Overbey Underwood, a settlement taken from a lawsuit in which she alleged she was beaten by police. The judge ordered on Monday that the city pay back all of the money, in addition to 6 percent annual interest.
In 2012, Underwood sued three Baltimore police officers, alleging that after she called 911 to report a burglary, the officers dispatched to her house became violent. She said they beat, tackled, choked, tasered, and handcuffed her, after which she was transferred to the hospital, jailed for 24 hours, and charged with six counts of assault and one count of resisting arrest.
The charges were subsequently dropped and the suit was settled in 2014 for $63,000. After Underwood came to her own defense against allegations online that she coordinated the entire scenario in order to get a windfall of cash, the city penalized her for infringing on a gag order and seized half of the settlement as consequence for her actions.
Subsequently, the gag orders were ruled unconstitutional by the Fourth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals and the city passed a bill banning the use of gag orders in settlements concerning police brutality and discrimination cases. However, federal court records show that the city persisted in their battle with Underwood to retain the money.
In her ruling, U.S. District Judge Deborah K. Chasanow called it an “illegal act,” writing that the city unconstitutionally enforced the clause. “Just as ‘strong public interests’ render the clause unenforceable, those interests counsel against allowing the City to keep the fruits of such improper enforcement,” Chasanow wrote.
The lawyers who filed the complaint have expressed their belief that the ruling is a striking victory for the perseverance of free speech and racial justice. The American Civil Liberties Union, who joined the lawsuit along with the Baltimore Brew news website, also called the decision a triumph for free speech.
“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.
“For free speech to truly have meaning it must protect the rights of all people,” Jeon said in a statement. “And for too long, Black people have had their free speech rights denied when they challenge abuse at the hands of police.”
While she acknowledged that the process had been rough, Underwood expressed gratitude to the individuals who stood by her, organized a social media campaign, marched and protested to increase recognition of her case.
“It’s been hurtful to see and hear so many horrible things that happened,” said Underwood in a statement released by the ACLU of Maryland. “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.”