In rare hearing, Baltimore police officer testifies about past internal affairs complaints

A Baltimore judge ruled Tuesday that defense attorneys can use past internal affairs complaints against a police officer as a way to raise questions about his credibility at an upcoming trial.

Circuit Judge Marcus Shar is allowing the public defender's office to question Baltimore Police Sgt. Joseph Donato about six past incidents in which he faced disciplinary measures at the trial this week of Deandre Spencer, who faces drug and gun charges.

At a rare public hearing Tuesday to discuss whether the past complaints could be used at the upcoming trial, Donato defended his actions in several incidents.

Donato's attorney, Chaz Ball, has previously said his client has never been found guilty through internal police disciplinary proceedings of any serious charges.

"We just appreciate it was an open court proceeding," said public defender Deborah K. Levi, who questioned Donato at the hearing. She said she hoped it would increase transparency about officers' histories of complaints.

Several attorneys with pending cases involving Donato asked a judge for access to 33 complaints filed against him from 2007 to 2016. An attorney for the city solicitor's office had argued against the release of the files, saying that they are personnel records that should be kept confidential.

A judge granted the attorneys access to the files earlier this month.

Arresting officers are often called to testify at trials, and prosecutors are required to turn over to defense attorneys any potential impeachment evidence, which could include cases where the officer's credibility is questioned.

Defense attorneys can then request the officer's personnel records, which are provided under a strict protective order. Both sides can argue over what records can be discussed during a trial to question an officer's credibility, but those hearings are usually closed to the public. A judge then makes a ruling about what can be discussed in open court.

"How many people went before us who were not allowed to ask questions on these incidences and were deprived of a fair trial," Levi said.

During Tuesday's hearing, Levi questioned Donato about several incidents, including one in which Dana Brown Jr. said Donato beat him in the head with a walkie-talkie after entering his home without a warrant in 2009.

Donato testified that Brown fell and hit his head, and he denied having assaulted Brown.

In another incident in 2011, Markele Jones, who lives in Carroll County but owns properties in the city, said she learned police had raided one of her properties. When Jones went to the property, she said Donato called an officer assigned to watch the home and told him to arrest her.

Donato said the officer was assigned to secure the home where cocaine was found. He said he instructed the officer to arrest Jones after the officer reported she had tried multiple times to get inside the home.

Levi also questioned Donato about a use-of-force incident by another officer against a Calvert Hall student in 2009. The teen was in a vehicle stopped during a traffic stop and the officer stuck the teen in the face.

Donato, the officer's supervisor, was not on the scene but had to investigate the incident, he said. He testified that there was a complaint made against him because he failed to follow proper protocol for a use-of-force incident by not going out to the scene to try to interview people about it.

Donato said he felt he had questioned enough witnesses who reported it to the police station. Levi asked if he had any contact with the teen that night, and Donato responded that he spoke to the teen but denied having assaulting the teen.

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