Prosecutors dismiss 34 gun and drug cases amid body camera investigation

City prosecutors are dismissing felony drug and gun charges in 34 cases that rely on the testimony of three police officers under scrutiny after the public defender’s office accused one of planting evidence while being recorded by his own body camera.

In announcing the dismissals Friday, Baltimore State’s Attorney Marilyn J. Mosby also said her office flagged a second body camera video in a separate case that raised further questions for prosecutors and sent it to the police department’s Internal Affairs division.

She did not describe the video. But police said it “involves two arrests and the recovery of drugs from a car during a traffic stop” — and said there is a gap in the video “before the final recovery of additional drugs” that is now being investigated.

Mosby said some of the 34 cases linked to the officers in the first video have already been dismissed, while others will be soon.

“The credibility of those officers has now been directly called into question,” Mosby said. “As I have stated before, it is incumbent upon us as prosecutors to be the ministers of justice, and to do what’s right in the pursuit of justice, over convictions, while simultaneously prioritizing public safety.”

Antonio Gioia, chief counsel in Mosby’s office, said prosecutors made “a decision in each and every one of those cases, after a very thorough review of the facts, that we did not have a case to prosecute without the testimony of one or all of the three officers.”

In 12 other cases linked to the officers in the first video, all involving incarcerated defendants, prosecutors have determined to move forward on the strength of “independent corroborative evidence,” Mosby said.

Another 77 pending cases involving the officers are still under review, she said.

The public defender’s office made the claim about planted evidence based on a body-worn camera video submitted by one of the officers as evidence in a January drug case. The footage shows the officer placing a soup can, which contains a plastic bag full of white capsules, into a trash-strewn lot. He is then seen walking to an alley, activating his body camera and then retrieving the drugs.

Officers’ body cameras automatically save the 30 seconds of video before activation, but without audio.

Officer Richard Pinheiro, whose body camera is recording and who handles the alleged drugs, has been suspended by the police department pending an internal investigation. Two other officers seen watching Pinheiro in the video, Officers Hovhannes Simonyan and Jamal Brunson, have been placed on administrative duty pending the investigation.

Local police union officials have urged against a rush to judgment in the matter. Police released additional video from the drug bust that indicated officers had found drugs in the same backyard before the video in question was recorded. Police Commissioner Kevin Davis said investigators are looking into whether the later video was a re-enactment of a drug discovery, but had not come to any conclusions.

In announcing the dismissal of cases linked to the officers, Mosby noted she made a similar move earlier this year — when her office dismissed dozens of criminal cases brought by seven Baltimore police officers who were federally indicted on racketeering charges in March.

The dismissals of criminal cases due to alleged police misconduct come as the city is dealing with historic violent crime. This week, Baltimore saw its 200th homicide of 2017 — with five months left in the calendar year.

Baltimore saw the most per-capita homicides in its history in 2015 and 2016, with 344 and 318 killings respectively. Before 2015, the city had not seen 300 or more homicides in a single year since the 1990s.

Mosby said prosecutors recently reviewed hundreds of body camera videos.

During the review, a prosecutor discovered the video that has since been sent to Internal Affairs. It involved other officers who together are involved in 219 other criminal cases. Prosecutors have since reviewed an additional 478 videos linked to them.

Melba Saunders, a spokeswoman for Mosby, said the office could not provide additional details because it is an open matter being investigated by the police department.

T.J. Smith, a police spokesman, said in a statement that the police department “has invited a heightened level of scrutiny since we have adopted one of the largest [body worn camera] programs in the nation,” and that “transparency efforts are ongoing as we strive to train our police officers with this new technology.”

“When shortcomings are apparent, we will investigate and act accordingly,” he said.

He did not say whether any officers have been suspended or put on administrative duty pending the investigation into the newly-flagged video.

Since the inception of the body camera program, more than 110,000 hours of footage have been recorded, and the department has “disciplined our police officers, counseled them, and trained them in accordance with best practices associated with this technology," Smith said.

“We remain committed to getting it right,” he said. “Our relationship with the community depends on it.”

Mosby and her top staff once again defended their handling of the body-camera footage that the public defender’s office flagged. The public defender’s office has criticized prosecutors for putting Pinheiro on the stand to testify in another criminal case despite being alerted to the video. For its part, the public defender’s office has acknowledged it had the video since April but did not view it closely until this month, when it brought it to the attention of prosecutors.

krector@baltsun.com

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