FALLS CHURCH, Va. — It is unconstitutional for the city of Baltimore to reduce financial settlements to alleged victims of police misconduct when they speak out about their experience, a federal appeals court has ruled, likening the practice to "hush money."
The 2-1 ruling Thursday from the 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Richmond reverses an earlier ruling against Baltimore resident Ashley Overbey. She negotiated a $63,000 settlement with the city after suing three police officers whom she said beat her and shot her with a stun gun when she reported a burglary in her home.
But she only got half the money because the city said she violated a non-disparagement clause in her settlement by responding to online comments in an article about her case.
The ACLU of Maryland sued on her behalf.
The judges said the non-disparagement clause violated Overbey's First Amendment rights.
The city's defense of the non-disparagement clauses, which it routinely uses in police misconduct cases, makes it "difficult to see what distinguishes it from hush money," wrote Judge Henry Floyd, an appointee of former President Barack Obama. Judge Stephanie Thacker, also an Obama appointee, joined in the opinion.
Judge A. Marvin Quattlebaum, an appointee of President Donald Trump, dissented. He said the non-disparagement clause is a legitimate provision in a contract between the city and Overbey.
"Under the agreement, she had a choice. She could abide by her promise not to talk about the case. If she did that, she would receive the full $63,000. Or she could do what she did — talk about the case. The consequence was that ... the City was entitled to keep $31,500 of the $63,000 settlement amount," Quattlebaum wrote.
City Solicitor Andre Davis said Baltimore will ask the full 4th Circuit to hear the case.
"The City is disappointed that a majority of the Fourth Circuit panel has sent the case back to the trial court for further proceedings," Davis said in a statement. "The City believes the dissenting judge on the panel provides the correct analysis of the case, as did the two lower court judges who earlier ruled in favor of the City."
The Maryland ACLU chapter called the ruling "a striking victory for the free speech rights of the mostly Black and Brown residents of Baltimore who are survivors of police abuse."
"I stood up for what's right and I am absolutely ecstatic about this ruling in favor of the people and their free speech rights," Overbey said in a statement provided by the ACLU. "People should be able to tell their stories and defend themselves when they are seeking justice, especially when the City gets to tell their side."
The settlement agreement provided no restrictions on what they city could say about the case.
The Baltimore Brew, a local news outlet, also sued on the grounds that the settlements restricted its ability to report on police misconduct, which has been a serious issue in the city for many years.
The judges agreed in their ruling that the Brew has a plausible argument that the non-disparagement clauses infringe on its ability to gather news.
The judges sent the case back to the district court for further proceedings.