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Baltimore prosecutors: Role in hearing on access to internal affairs files ‘proactive’

Criminal defense attorneys celebrated a victory for transparency this week as they were given permission by a Baltimore city judge to attempt to introduce internal affairs records for a police sergeant into evidence in their clients’ cases. But statements from the Baltimore City State’s Attorney’s Office claim that its “proactive” efforts led to a consolidated hearing on the issue earlier this month.

Attorneys for 20 defendants, led by Assistant Public Defender Deborah K. Levi, argued at a hearing March 6 that the records relating to Sgt. Joseph M. Donato should be discoverable material. Baltimore City Circuit Judge John S. Nugent granted them access to 33 of 35 requested files.

Levi said a motion for subpoena for tangible evidence was filed seeking access to Donato’s internal affairs records as early as last May, and as more defendants with active cases involving Donato joined the push, the State’s Attorney’s Office worked with defense attorneys to schedule them for a consolidated hearing on the same day.

When asked for comment on the judge’s ruling, state’s attorney’s office spokeswoman Melba Saunders said in an emailed statement her office “proactively” filed a motion for production and review of Donato’s records in February and requested a hearing.

“In the pursuit of justice and in fairness, we consolidated all the cases in which this officer was listed as a witness, including those where the defense had not yet subpoenaed the records, because we felt the need to obtain guidance from the court as to what we should legally disclose,” she said.

The motion is not available in the criminal court files and does not appear in docket entries for the cases. Saunders on Wednesday provided a motion to seal received by the court Feb. 14, which references prosecutors’ motion as “attached.” Nugent’s chambers Wednesday could not confirm the status of the motion to seal, which also does not appear in docket entries.

Levi on Wednesday declined to comment in response to Saunders’ statement.

Levi’s motion cited a 2014 opinion in a federal lawsuit in which U.S. District Judge Catherine C. Blake said Donato engaged in “unacceptable behavior” by allegedly entering a home without a warrant, destroying the residence’s door frame and writing a report that conflicted with his fellow officers’ accounts of the incident. Blake also referenced findings in Donato’s internal affairs file.

The case ended in a grant of summary judgment for the defendant officers but Blake noted the court “in no way condones (their) alleged conduct.”

The motion also cites a 2014 City Paper article reporting an internal affairs complaint was filed against Donato for the conduct alleged in the civil case.

Donato’s lawyer said this week that his client has “never been found responsible for any use of excessive force or any charge impugning his integrity.”

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