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Md. appeals court halts criminal trial to address internal affairs records spat

The Court of Special Appeals on Thursday temporarily stayed a Baltimore criminal trial so it can rule on a police officer’s motion to prohibit the defendant from questioning the officer about his internal affairs records.

A Baltimore city judge ruled Wednesday that Deandre Spencer, charged with drug and firearms offenses, could cross-examine Sgt. Joseph Donato on complaints in his internal personnel records for the purpose of impeachment.

Attorneys for Donato immediately appealed the decision and requested an emergency stay, which was granted Thursday as Spencer’s trial was set to begin.

Spencer is one of a group of defendants who successfully petitioned to have Donato’s internal affairs records be discoverable. Assistant Public Defender Deborah Levi, who represents Spencer and spearheaded the effort to access Donato’s records, said her office will respond Thursday to Donato’s appeal.

Baltimore City Circuit Judge Marcus Z. Shar held a public hearing earlier this week on the admissibility of the records in Spencer’s case, where testimony of the complainants was given in open court and Shar ruled that six of the records were admissible.

In his emergency motion to stay the proceedings, Donato urged the Court of Special Appeals to review the trial court’s decision allowing a criminal defendant to cross-examine him about “complaints that do not pertain to integrity and those that resulted in a finding in Sgt. Donato’s favor.”

Donato argues he should not be subject to questioning about internal complaints resolved in his favor because the Law Enforcement Officers’ Bill of Rights states evidence of a formal complaint is not admissible if the complaint resulted in exoneration, a determination the charges were unfounded or an acquittal. Two of the six records Shar ruled were admissible in Spencer’s case had a result in Donato’s favor.

Donato also claims allegations of general neglect or excessive force are not admissible to impeach him because impeaching a witness by prior conduct is limited to matters related to truthfulness. In police cases, impeachment is normally limited to allegations of false statements.

Chaz R. Ball of Schlachman, Belsky, and Weiner P.A. in Baltimore, Donato’s attorney, has said his client has “never been found responsible for any use of excessive force or any charge impugning his integrity.”

Levi argued at a hearing Monday that sometimes a complaint against an officer regarding assault can be relevant to impeachment if the officer made statements about the alleged assault that conflict with other officers’ accounts or any video of the incident.

“There is no assaultive case that I am going forward on that does not have impeachment implications,” she said.

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