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Baltimore County

Baltimore County state’s attorney candidate disciplined in 2020 for using cellphone to record a courtroom witness

A candidate in the race for Baltimore County state’s attorney was reprimanded by Maryland’s attorney disciplinary commission in 2020 for audio recording a portion of trial proceedings with his cellphone.

Robbie Leonard, a Democrat challenging incumbent Scott Shellenberger in the upcoming primary election, was disciplined after recording an expert witness while observing a civil lead-paint trial in Baltimore City Circuit Court.

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Shellenberger, who is seeking a fifth term as the county’s top prosecutor, cited the disciplinary action Monday evening as he went on the offensive against Leonard during a candidate forum.

The virtual event, sponsored by the League of Women Voters of Baltimore County and the Randallstown NAACP, also touched upon the candidates’ qualifications for the job, juvenile justice issues, preventing recidivism and other topics.

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Leonard did not respond during the forum to Shellenberger’s comments about the reprimand issued by the state Attorney Grievance Commission. In a phone interview with The Baltimore Sun afterward, Leonard called the incident “a minor infraction” and said it is up to voters to decide what weight to give it.

Leonard, currently an attorney in private practice, said the reprimand was public information available to clients and others.

“I have not used my cellphone in a courtroom without a judge’s permission since then, but I have never had a client upset with my work or want to hire another attorney based on that,” he said.

A reprimand is public discipline against a lawyer. A document posted on the Maryland court system’s website states that Leonard, referred to by his full name, Robert Joseph Leonard, was reprimanded for “engaging in conduct that is prejudicial to the administration of justice.”

“Respondent used his cellphone to record court proceedings despite notices prominently displayed throughout the courthouse prohibiting such conduct,” the document states.

According to a more detailed reprimand letter sent to Leonard in 2020, Leonard was not involved in the 2019 trial but attended to watch the cross-examination of a defense expert in preparation for another trial. At the time, he was a plaintiff’s attorney handling lead paint cases.

He used his cellphone to audio-record the cross examination of the defense expert, which violates court rules against cellphone use, according to the reprimand letter. The judge called Leonard to the bench, and Leonard “admitted that he had used his cellphone to audio record the expert’s testimony and acknowledged that he knew the use of cellphones was prohibited.” He deleted the recording and left the courtroom as requested by the judge.

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“I had a trial with the same expert witness the next week,” Leonard said in the interview with The Sun. Instead of getting a transcript from the court, he said, “I just recorded it myself.”

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Shellenberger hasn’t faced a primary challenger since being elected in 2006. Leonard is secretary of the state Democratic Party and a former public defender in Baltimore.

In opening statements during the Monday forum, Shellenberger also criticized Leonard for a mailer sent to county voters last week by Leonard’s campaign.

The mailer features photos of a dozen officials said to have endorsed Leonard. But Shellenberger said Leonard “wrongly claimed” the endorsements of Rep. Anthony Brown and Maryland House Speaker Adrienne Jones. Shellenberger said he had confirmed with both they were not endorsing Leonard.

After the forum, Leonard said the officials had offered him their support, including holding joint canvassing events where volunteers handed out his campaign literature.

“It’s my political misunderstanding that technically, that doesn’t mean an endorsement,” Leonard said.

Two Republicans also are running in the July 19 primary: Deborah Hill and James A. Haynes.


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