Can You Use the Misconduct of Maryland Police Officers to Discredit Their Testimony?

977051_law_and_order_7In a recent criminal case, the Maryland Court of Appeals considered whether it was permissible to look into internal files related to the misconduct of two detectives and use the information to challenge their credibility in a criminal trial.

The case arose when two men were tried jointly and convicted after a shooting in Baltimore, Maryland. The Court of Special Appeals reversed the judgments and a new trial followed. They were tried again and convicted. The Court of Special Appeals affirmed the more serious judgments.

The men petitioned the Court of Appeals to review several questions. One of the questions for review was whether the trial court had made a mistake in refusing to let the defense inspect internal investigation division files related to officer misconduct and refusing to let them be cross-examined regarding the misconduct.

The shooting occurred in 2003 and was motivated by revenge. The jury found one of the petitioners guilty of second-degree murder, attempted murder, conspiracy to commit murder, and handgun offenses. The jury found the other petitioner guilty of conspiracy to murder and handgun offenses.

Before the second retrial, one petitioner requested that a subpoena be issued to the Baltimore Police Department. The subpoena asked Internal Investigations to produce files related to a complaint against two detectives involved in investigating the shootings. The internal investigation had led to a finding that the allegations were “sustained” and the case was “administratively closed.”

The police department moved to quash (stop) the subpoena. The petitioner argued in support of the subpoena that the detectives had previously been accused of committing and conspiring to commit theft by deception by submitting fraudulent overtime slips.

They also argued that the complaint had been “sustained” by internal affairs. From the petitioners’ perspective the information sought by the subpoena could be used to challenge the detective’s credibility.

The Department argued that the petitioners had not adequately identified the internal investigation. They argued that even if the allegations were “sustained,” this did not prove the officer’s guilt. They also argued the files were open and therefore not discoverable.

The court decided it would conduct an in camera review of the summaries of the files to see if they were relevant. An “in camera” review is one conducted by the judge privately, away from the parties.

Two days later, the Department presented information indicating that the internal investigations were closed and the department was not investigating it further. The court told the parties there was nothing of interest in the summaries and that the defendants had as much information as they were able to get.

The court reasoned that the only issue that could be raised with access to the files would be a collateral issue of impeachment. However, the judge said he would allow the petitioners to cross-examine the detectives at trial and try to impeach them.

At trial, the State tried to prevent the petitioners from the cross-examination. The trial judge was not the same judge as the one who ruled on the motion to quash. He would not let the petitioners cross-examine on the topic of the allegations against the detectives.

The appellate court, reviewing the discovery issues, explained that both rulings were legal error and reversed the lower courts on these issues. The basis of its ruling was the Maryland Public Information Act, which allows a person or governmental unit to inspect any public record at a reasonable time unless the law provides otherwise

The appellate court explained that while personnel records are usually exempt, the right to confidentiality in police files must be balanced against the defendant’s confrontation and due process rights. It ruled that the lower court had the obligation to review the content of the files, not just the summaries, and allow discovery if doing so could lead to usable evidence.

This type of challenge is rare, but it’s one of many ways a criminal defense attorney can attack the prosecution’s case. Consult an experienced Maryland criminal defense attorney to get the best defense. Contact us at 301-519-2801 or via our online form.

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