Still via footage from the Office of the Public Defender

Prosecutors have charged a city cop with evidence tampering and misconduct in office in the notorious case in which he recorded himself placing drugs into an empty soup can in a Southwest Baltimore alley before arresting a suspect last January.

A grand jury on Tuesday indicted Officer Richard Pinheiro, city prosecutors announced yesterday afternoon. Pinheiro was one of three officers involved in a Jan. 24, 2017, incident in which he was seen walking up to a pile of trash in an alley, placing a bag of pills into an aluminum can and walking back to two other officers. He was then recorded switching his camera on, returning to the pile of trash, conducting a half-hearted search and “finding” the drugs.

Apparently unbeknownst to Pinheiro at the time, the department’s Axon body cameras record the first 30 seconds before they are switched on with out sound, which the company’s website describes as “buffering mode.”

Pinheiro and the two other officers used the drugs as evidence to arrest a suspect for heroin possession, but after the suspect’s public defender flagged the video for prosecutors, they dropped all charges. The man was jailed for months on $50,000 bail before he was released.

Pinheiro’s first offense, tampering with or fabricating physical evidence, carries up to three years in prison and a $5,000 fine, while the misconduct charge offers a court discretion to determine the penalty.

Prosecutors announced no charges against the other two officers seen at the edge of the alley in the video.

Police spokesman T.J. Smith said in a statement Wednesday that Pinheiro has been suspended “since the incident occurred”; in an email Thursday morning, he clarified that the suspension took effect in July 2017, after the footage became national news.

The department changed its body-worn camera policies in the aftermath of the scandal, Smith said. “In short, officers must keep their cameras on from the beginning of an event until that event is over and they have left the scene,” he said, “to ensure that if any additional police actions take place they are captured on the cameras.”

Pinheiro is due to be arraigned on Feb. 13, court records show. His attorney, Michael Davey, hasn’t responded to a request for comment, but told The Sun Pinheiro “simply tried to document the recovery of evidence with his body-worn camera that he had previously recovered.” He called the charges “just another overreach by the Baltimore State’s Attorney’s Office, and an attempt to prosecute a police officer when there’s no evidence to do so.”

Prosecutors also announced Wednesday that they’ve cleared three other officers in a separate body-worn camera scandal from June 2017. The incident happened in June, when an officer was shown wading through poison ivy to find a suspect’s drug stash in a blunt wrapper. Upon realizing he had retrieved the drugs without first switching his camera on, he dropped the drugs into the leaves, flipped his camera on, and then recovered them with his device as witness.

Two other officers did have their cameras on, and captured the behavior, which prosecutors characterized in August 2017 as “questionable activity” and a “reenactment” of evidence discovery. Police used the drugs as evidence against their suspect, who was already detained after a previous run-in with police. (The officers learned about the blunt-wrapper drug stash on a recorded phone call between the suspect and a confidant.)

The officer self-reported his conduct to a superior in August. Prosecutors dropped charges against the suspect several weeks later.

But this week, the Baltimore City State’s Attorney’s office said it determined in an investigation that “the acts on the video were just the recovery of drugs and there is nothing false or fraudulent in the BWC videos that would deceive or mislead a reasonable person.” The officer’s discovery reenactment “did not rise to a level of criminal culpability,” prosecutors said.

Former Police Commissioner Kevin Davis, who was fired by Mayor Catherine Pugh last week, had criticized the state’s attorney’s office for dropping the charges in the June case.

Prosecutors said in December that they dropped 111 cases tied to Pinheiro and his two fellow officers, and 56 cases involving the officers in the June case involving the blunt wrapper.

Ethan McLeod is a freelance reporter in Baltimore. He previously worked as an editor for the Baltimore Business Journal and Baltimore Fishbowl. His work has appeared in Bloomberg CityLab, Next City and...