By Tim Prudente The Baltimore Sun
BALTIMORE — The body camera video drew national attention, became material for TV comedians and left Baltimore police with another black eye.
Public defenders released the video last year, saying it showed a city police officer caught planting evidence by the very camera he wore on his chest.
But witnesses offered a different explanation Wednesday during the start of the trial for Officer Richard Pinheiro Jr. in Baltimore Circuit Court.
“He definitely confirmed that he did not plant anything,” witness Jay Malik, an assistant state’s attorney, told the judge.
Pinheiro’s defense attorneys say the 30-year-old officer forgot to turn on his body camera before recovering a stash of drugs last year in Southwest Baltimore. Pinheiro realized his mistake, they say, and turned on his camera to re-enact the find.
His discovery led to drug charges against a Baltimore man. The charges were dropped after public defenders released the body camera footage and publicly accused Pinheiro of planting the drugs.
Malik had been assigned to prosecute the drug case. He said he called Pinheiro to ask about the footage after public defenders raised questions.
On Wednesday, Michael Belsky, a defense attorney for the officer, asked Malik about that phone call.
“He said, ‘I made a mistake. My body camera was off. I went back and documented what I found.’ Is that correct?” Belsky asked.
“Something to that effect,” Malik said. “Something to the effect of, ‘I had forgotten it was off, and they dinged us for having it off.’ ”
Pinheiro told Malik that police commanders would punish officers who forgot to turn on their body cameras.
Officers may write notes into the body camera software program to explain their videos.
Lt. Hans Nicolas runs the body camera program for the Baltimore Police. He testified that Pinheiro left no notes. Nicolas said failing to provide notice of a re-enactment would amount only to a violation of department policy.
“I do not believe a failure to notify is an integrity issue,” Nicolas told the judge.
The video was recorded during a drug arrest in January 2017. Prosecutors dropped the heroin-possession charge against the man arrested. He had been held for more than six months, unable to post $50,000 bail.
In July 2017, public defenders released the footage. An investigation ensued. Pinheiro was suspended and last January a grand jury indicted him on charges of misconduct and fabricating evidence.
The charge of fabricating evidence is a misdemeanor, which carries a maximum penalty of three years in prison and a $5,000 fine. Misconduct in office is a common-law offense, which means that the court is free to impose any penalty that’s not cruel and unusual punishment.
The video was one of three that surfaced in summer 2017 that public defenders said showed questionable actions by Baltimore officers. Prosecutors cleared the officers of wrongdoing in the other videos.
Such cases revealed the early stumbles of the city’s body camera program. Officials spent more than $11 million on the cameras and began rolling them out across the force in May 2016.