A Baltimore police officer whose body camera showed him placing a soup can with drugs inside in a trash-strewn lot said the footage was intended to serve as a re-creation of how he first found the drugs for “documentation” purposes.
Officer Richard Pinheiro Jr., 30, said he forgot to turn on his body-worn camera when he first found the drugs in a lot in Southwest Baltimore in January 2017. He decided to return them to the area, activate his camera and then retrace his steps to show how he found the evidence.
Pinheiro was one of several officers who testified in his defense in his case Thursday in Baltimore Circuit Court. He is charged with fabricating evidence, a misdemeanor that carries up to three years’ imprisonment, and misconduct in office, for which the court is free to choose any penalty. Several colleagues, including his former partner, who is now an Anne Arundel County police officer, and the sergeant who supervises the Baltimore Police marine unit, where Pinheiro has worked as a diver, also testified to his integrity.
The footage was made public months after the incident by the public defender’s office, and drew national attention. The video was one of three raised in 2017 that defense attorneys said depicted questionable activity by officers.
Pinheiro described how he and other officers were searching for evidence after a drug transaction in the area. The group had already located a “pack” of drugs, which Pinheiro said was captured on their body cameras, but they continued to search the area for additional drugs. He said he followed tracks to the alleyway and found the soup can within an arm’s reach of where he was standing. He walked back to the group of officers who he said were about 30 feet away and told them what he had found but also realized he had made a mistake.
“Dang, I forgot to turn my camera on,” he said on the stand.
The footage shows him placing the can on the ground because the body-worn cameras automatically recorded before they are activated. After placing the can on the ground, Pinheiro walks to the street, and flips his camera on, and is then heard saying, “I’m gonna go check here.”
His attorney, Chaz R. Ball, asked him why Pinheiro then decided to re-create the footage, rather then notifying someone.
“For documentation purposes,” he said, adding that he did not want to face “repercussions from the agency.”
Ball asked him whether anything captured on the video he made was different from when he first discovered the drugs.
“Absolutely not,” Pinheiro responded.
Pinheiro said he was not the arresting officer in the case, did not write the statement of probable cause and did not file an incident report in the case. He said he had told the group of officers on the scene he was re-creating the video, and believed the arresting officer was present and therefore did not attempt to report the incident further.
“I could have sworn he was there,” Pinheiro said later during cross-examination. Pinheiro’s explanation of the footage, however, was not noted in the statement of probable cause or elsewhere.
“I didn’t honestly know that I had to” provide narration or notification about the “documentation, he told Assistant State’s Attorney Stacy Ann Llewellyn, who grilled him about why he never notified anyone of his actions, including the prosecutors in the drug case in which the video was first flagged by attorneys.
Pinheiro said he continued work on other cases and didn’t think much about the case until he received a call from the prosecutor in the defendant’s drug case.
Jay Malik, an assistant state’s attorney, testified the day before that Pinheiro “definitely confirmed that he did not plant anything.”
But Llewellyn argued that when her colleague called Pinheiro seeking an explanation, she asked him whether he was planting evidence or if it had been an attempt to re-create the discovery. She said the officer merely chose the less-serious option.
She made the arguments after Pinheiro’s attorneys made a motion for an acquittal, arguing the state lacked evidence for a criminal case.
Michael Belsky said his client maybe could’ve handled the situation better, but that the error did not rise to criminal charges. He said his client did not intend any wrongdoing, and immediately admitted to re-creating the video when asked about it by Malik. Judge Melissa Phinn denied the motion.
During his testimony, Pinheiro said officers are trained to document evidence, and in situations such as executing a search warrant, when drugs or guns are found, they will place the item in its original position to document it.
He also testified that his body-camera training was very brief, and mainly covered how to operate the camera and instructing the officers to turn the camera on when interacting with the community.
Sgt. Josh Rosenblatt, the police academy’s head of legal instruction, who has trained officers on policies regarding body-worn cameras, said officers were never instructed to re-create how they found evidence.
Rosenblatt, who also testified Thursday, said officers are instructed to document when a camera is off but should have been on, and that could include the officer speaking on the video, explaining the incident.
“You need to document it somehow,” he said.
Rosenblatt said the training and policies have been refined since the department began issuing body-worn cameras, but noted that training in 2016 was largely focused on “investigation and enforcement actions.”
“The policy was imperfect. … It didn’t cover all situations,” he said.
Closing arguments are expected to begin Friday morning.