by Matt Clarke
On July 19, 2017, the Maryland Office of the Public Defender released a video recording made by Baltimore Police Officer Richard Pinheiro's body-cam showing him planting drugs in a backyard then "discovering" them a few minutes later. Because of the video recording, a man who was held in jail for six months on drug possession charges has been released, Pinheiro was suspended and two other police officers have been limited to administrative duties.
The video starts with Pinheiro holding a soup can with a clear plastic bag stuffed inside it. He places the can in a trash-strewn backyard of a row house. Two other police officers are present. They leave the backyard through a narrow alley and move to a sidewalk.
Once on the sidewalk, Pinheiro activates the body camera, apparently unaware that this causes it to preserve a video-only recording of the 30 seconds prior to the body-cam's activation. The recording continues with Pinheiro saying, "I'm going to check here, hold on," while another officer can barely stifle a laugh. After a brief "search," Pinheiro "discovers" the soup can and plastic bag. He opens the bag, revealing white capsules.
A man was arrested in connection with the "discovery" of the drugs. Unable to post a $50,000 bond, he was incarcerated in jail for months until the public defender's office sent a copy of the body-cam recording to the state attorney's office. That got the charges dropped and the man released.
"Officer misconduct has been a pervasive issue at the Baltimore Police Department, which is exacerbated by the lack of accountability," said Deborah Katz Levi, head of the Baltimore Public Defender's Special Litigation Section and who represented the man police arrested. "We have long supported the use of police body cameras to help identify police misconduct, but such footage is meaningless of prosecutors continue to rely on these officers, especially if they do so without disclosing their bad acts," referring to the fact that prosecutors used Pinheiro's testimony in other cases without disclosing the video.
"Officers should not be able to decide when to turn the cameras on and off," said Levi.
Pinheiro is listed as a witness in an additional 53 active cases. Prosecutors have no clear policy on how to handle Pinheiro and the two other officers recorded in the video.
Baltimore Police Commissioner Ken Davis downplayed the video, inferring that the officers might have been recreating the initial discovery of the drugs which, while also unacceptable, would be a different explanation from the outright planting of evidence. If that is the case, one wonders why the officers involved haven't said so.
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