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Thank you, K’Shaani!

Highlights from the Murnaghan Fellow’s year at the PJC

August 28, 2018

This month we say thank you and farewell to K’Shaani Smith, who just wrapped up her year as the Francis D. Murnaghan, Jr. Appellate Advocacy Fellow at the Public Justice Center. Her briefs have contributed much to the PJC’s advocacy on a range of issues related to civil rights and poverty law, and we share a few highlights below.

Justice for tenants
K’Shaani’s work had a significant impact on tenants’ rights in a Court of Appeals decision in Hunter v. Broadway Overlook. Her brief argued that before filing a breach of lease complaint in District Court, the law requires the landlord to show three things: 1) that the tenant breached the lease, 2) that the landlord gave the tenant 30 or 14 days’ notice to vacate the premises (the time given depends on the nature of the alleged breach), and 3) that the tenant failed to comply with the notice. Despite clear language spelling out these requirements, lower courts have repeatedly determined that landlords do not need to meet the prerequisites before filing a complaint as long as they meet them sometime before trial. K’Shaani’s arguments were reflected in the Court’s opinion, which held that landlords must exhaust the notice period before filing a breach of lease complaint. The ruling will help prevent landlords from persisting in issuing defective notices and filing premature complaints against tenants, subjecting them to denial of a fair trial and risk of preventable homelessness.

Police violence against Black women
K’Shaani is most proud of her work to incorporate a race equity lens into the PJC’s Appellate Advocacy Project. In an amicus brief filed in Overbey v. Mayor & City Council of Balt., she supported the case of Ashley Overbey, who was beaten by Baltimore City police officers after calling them for assistance when her home was burglarized. Ms. Overbey filed a civil rights lawsuit against the Baltimore Police Department and the city, which concluded with a settlement agreement. One term of the agreement prohibited her from ever speaking about the incident (essentially a gag order), and if she violated the term, half of the settlement amount would be withheld. But the then City Solicitor issued a statement about the case in the Baltimore Sun disparaging Ms. Overbey. She defended herself in the comments section of the Sun article, and the city withheld half of her settlement.

In a brief filed by the Public Justice Center, Washington Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights and Urban Affairs, National Women’s Law Center, and Baltimore City civil rights advocate Tawanda Jones, K’Shaani argued that the city’s gag order policy inhibits police accountability and allows for the continuation of police violence against Black women and other vulnerable populations in Baltimore. The brief makes clear that these gag orders are used to conceal from the public the BPD’s frequent unwarranted violence against civilians. K’Shaani was glad to shine a light on an important issue that is not often discussed.

Bail reform
K’Shaani also worked on a series of briefs to guide judges in interpreting and implementing a new rule limiting the use of bail. The briefs detailed the damage done in communities of color when judges assign bail that people cannot afford. When someone is jailed, their family can lose income, educational opportunities, and housing. Children of detainees are even affected long-term, suffering setbacks in education and lower lifetime income. With such a major disruption, detained defendants are more likely to plead guilty because they have already lost so much. Those detained are also more likely to be convicted because they are hampered in preparing their defense. And pretrial detention ironically increases crime, with detained defendants more likely to recidivate than those released while awaiting trial.

One of these briefs has already made an impact, convincing the Court of Special Appeals to issue an urgent order, reversing a circuit court’s refusal to review an unaffordable bail set by a lower court. We await a detailed opinion in the case, which we hope will provide important guidance to trial judges determining affordable bail under Maryland’s new rule.

Legal Director Debra Gardner expressed gratitude for K’Shaani’s many contributions to the PJC. “K’Shaani’s work during her fellowship year with the PJC has been stellar in quality, substantial in quantity, and weighty in impact on the lives of poor people and communities of color in Baltimore and throughout Maryland.  She has also left a permanent imprint on the PJC as an organization working to achieve race equity in its many roles, including as an employer, member of the nonprofit legal community, and legal advocate.”

After her fellowship concludes, K’Shaani will continue working for justice as a political law associate at Perkins Coie in Washington, DC.

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