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In rare move, Baltimore judge allows open hearing on officers' internal affairs complaints

In a rare move, a Baltimore judge on Monday allowed members of the public to attend a court hearing where internal affairs complaints against a city police officer were discussed in detail.

Defense attorneys hailed the open hearing as a victory for transparency in an area that has long been kept secret. Police disciplinary records in Maryland are regarded as confidential documents, but the Office of the Public Defender has fought to obtain records for Sgt. Joseph Donato and bring them into court, arguing his credibility as an officer is tainted.

"It was historic to have this hearing in the open," said Natalie Finegar, the deputy public defender for Baltimore. "If you have hearings in the open regarding prior bad acts of police officers and investigations, nobody can claim they don't have knowledge."

Donato, who through an attorney has said he has never been found guilty through internal police disciplinary proceedings of any serious charges, was slated to take the stand Tuesday morning.

Three people who filed complaints against Donato took the stand Monday, accusing Donato of being an over-aggressive officer. Dana Brown Jr. said Donato beat him in the head with a walkie-talkie after entering his home without a warrant in 2009. Brown acknowledged convictions of his own, but said Donato was wrong.

"I can admit when I'm wrong, but that extra stuff? Nah," he told a reporter after the hearing, referring to being struck.

In Maryland, police discipline records are considered personnel records and not accessible by the public. When officers make arrests and become witnesses in those cases, prosecutors are required to turn over to defense attorneys potential impeachment evidence, which could include instances when the officer's credibility was called into question.

Defense attorneys can then request that officer's personnel records, which are provided under a strict protective order requiring that they not disclose the materials.

And in the past, the court holds a closed hearing where attorneys argue over what records can be brought into a trial to question the officer's credibility. Only material deemed relevant by the judge makes it into open court.

But on Monday, Circuit Judge Marcus Shar agreed with public defender Deborah K. Levi that arguments for keeping the hearing sealed were trumped by her client's right to a fair and public trial.

"Maybe that's how we lift the veil of secrecy," Levi argued. "Maybe that's how we get more transparency, and don't end up with a [Department of Justice] consent decree."

More than 30 complaints against Donato filed from 2007 to 2016 have been disclosed to attorneys representing clients with pending cases involving Donato. An attorney for the city solicitor's office argued that the personnel records were confidential and issued to Levi under a strict protective order, and that having an open hearing would defeat the purpose of that order.

Defense attorneys say the State's Attorney's Office has not disclosed potential credibility issues of officers as required, or has fought to block the release of records. At Monday's hearing, Assistant State's Attorney Robin Wherley said case law was unclear and she was seeking guidance from the court.

The first witness called by Levi was Markele Jones, a Carroll County resident who owns properties in the city. In 2011, she said she was informed that police had raided one of her properties and said she traveled to the home to find out what was going on.

Jones said she was at the property having casual conversation with police officers assigned to watch the home when one of them said Donato called and instructed him to arrest her. She said the officer told her, "I don't even know what I'm arresting you for," but said he had to follow the supervisor's order.

She spent 18 hours in jail on a charge of obstructing and hindering, which was not prosecuted, she said.

"He told me I tried to stop them from going in the house, stuff that wasn't true," she said.

Wherley on cross-examination noted that police found "a substantial amount of drugs" in the home, and said Jones incorrectly told the officers that one of the men in the home was her fiance.

"We all lied that day," Jones said, drawing a shocked look from Shar.

Wherley also asked Brown, the man who said he has a scar on his head from being struck with a walkie-talkie, about his record. Brown said police raided an apartment in his building, then barged into his apartment, pushing past his mother and throwing him on the ground. He said the officer cursed at him and his mother, demanding to know the location of a stash of drugs.

Bridget Mack also testified that her son was harassed by Donato. She filed two complaints on his behalf, before he was killed last year in a shooting. She said her son got frustrated with the internal affairs investigation, telling her that he didn't think the investigators believed him.

Donato declined to comment as he waited in the courthouse hallway. Attorney Chaz Ball released a statement earlier this month saying Donato has never been found responsible in internal proceedings for "any use of excessive force or any charge impugning his integrity."

"Of course, someone who is arrested and has their freedom taken away, who is charged with a crime and potentially facing prolonged imprisonment is going to be upset and could make a complaint," Ball said. "Some people make complaints to back officers off of investigations, or to try to prevent those officers from testifying. That is their right. And there is no negative consequence for making a false complaint."

jfenton@baltsun.com

twitter.com/justin_fenton

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