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Porter defense on seat belt policy appears to be, 'He didn't get the memo'

His defense team took every opportunity Thursday morning to show that the youngest police officer charged in the death of Freddie Gray, 26-year-old William Porter, might have missed the memo — the one about making sure all persons arrested in the city of Baltimore are securely buckled into their seats when they’re being transported to a lockup.

And missing the memo might not have been Porter's fault, according to his defense.

For one thing, the revised rule about seat-belting all prisoners went out on a department-wide email blast with an 80-page attachment. Porter was assigned to the Western District, and the officers there complained about the district's slow, antiquated computer system. The Baltimore Police Department had general computer network issues earlier this year. And there was some kind of a virus back in the spring. And there’s no way to know if Porter ever received the email with the new seat belt policy. And the memo about the seat belts apparently was not read aloud at roll call.
And on and on like that.
The defense made these points in their questioning because the charges against Porter stem from his decision not to seat-belt Freddie Gray after his arrest in West Baltimore last April 12.
Gray suffered a severe spinal cord injury while in the back of a police transport wagon. He was handcuffed. He had shackles on his legs. Gray was not seat-belted on the bench along the interior wall of the wagon.
His defense lawyers suggested that Porter might not have known he was supposed to do this.
He might have missed the email that said he had to.
Is this a good line of defense to pursue? Will it be persuasive with the jury?
Certainly a lot of us can identify with the digital-age challenge of trying to keep up with all the FYIs, directives, warnings, policy statements, instructions, reminders and attachments that arrive by email on the job. Who has time to read them thoroughly? It’s a big pain, right? You can see where jurors in Porter’s trial could be sympathetic to the idea that a busy police officer in Baltimore might have missed an email that said seat-belting a detainee in a police wagon was no longer optional.
And the policy went out on April 9, just three days before Porter’s encounter with Gray in Sandtown-Winchester. So maybe jurors will think it plausible and reasonable that an email could slip by a guy for three days.
But, this turned out to be a matter of life and death. Gray is dead. He suffered a trauma in the back of the van. The state medical examiner said it was no accident. Baltimore’s former police commissioner, Anthony Batts, sent out a revised directive on seat-belting detainees for a reason. The city had paid out millions in settlements in police excessive force cases and, in a couple of instances, people in custody had been severely injured during rough rides in police wagons.
So a juror might also think that missing that memo is no excuse at all for Porter.
And, come on, unless they go to your spam or junk file, most emails land in your “in” box. (My employer does not allow me to designate employer-generated email as junk or spam.)
During questioning of Capt. Martin Bartness, the police commissioner’s chief of staff, defense attorney Gary Proctor made the point that there was no way to verify if Porter ever opened the April 9 email with the revised seat belt order.
The Baltimore Police Department’s director of information technology, Andrew Jaffee, agreed. But, Jaffee said, the department’s Outlook archive showed that Porter’s address was included in the email blast of April 9.
Not knowing the law -- not noticing the speed limit on a street or stretch of highway, as a simple example -- is usually not an acceptable excuse. A police officer not knowing a policy (or missing the memo about one) isn’t much of one, either.

In his opening statement Wednesday, Proctor hammered on all the obstacles between the seat-belt policy and Porter’s knowledge of it, including the fact that hardly any Baltimore officers ever seat-belted detainees in place. "Officer Porter didn't even know there was a rule," the lawyer told the jury. "You can't hold him accountable for what nobody did."

I don’t know about that, either. That falls into the cuz-everyone-else-did-it (or didn’t do it) realm of excuse-making that we’re supposed to give up by age 10. It’s hard to imagine a juror buying that argument.
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