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Alex Mann

Baltimore Sun

January 10, 2024

A city judge convicted a Baltimore Police officer Wednesday of theft and misconduct in office, finding that the officer stole from a business while on duty.

Eric Payton, 46, who is a Baltimore Police Department veteran of seven years, had been suspended without pay since being charged in September.

“The officer, in full uniform, stole from the very entity he was called to protect,” said Baltimore Circuit Judge Yvette M. Bryant, finding Payton guilty of both counts.

Payton faces more than a year of incarceration at his Feb. 5  sentencing. Theft of between $100 and $1,500 carries a maximum of up to one year in prison, while misconduct in office, a common law misdemeanor, comes with any penalty a judge wishes, so long as it’s not considered cruel and unusual.

Bryant’s ruling followed about six hours of testimony and argument by attorneys. She then considered the evidence in chambers for roughly 20 minutes.

Payton and his attorney, Chaz Ball, declined to comment after court.

Around 1:30 a.m. Sept. 20, Payton met his partner at a business in Northeast Baltimore to check for a burglary. His partner, Officer Francisco Jeanty, had found the front door unlocked and ajar and called for backup before going in.

Inside, the officers searched for any employees or anyone who didn’t belong, announcing themselves by yelling “Baltimore City Police” and shining their flashlights throughout the building, according to Jeanty’s body-camera footage, which prosecutors played at Payton’s trial.

Payton’s body camera was not on, which was a violation of department policy.

But the business’s security cameras captured what Jeanty’s lens didn’t.

While they were in the garage bays, Payton saw something on the ground and kicked it before reaching down, grabbing it and putting it in the left pocket of his pants, the footage showed.

It was an envelope with approximately $120 in cash — accounts differed on the amount of money.

After putting the money in his pocket, Payton shifted his attention to finding a phone number to ask the business owner to return and lock the door.

He didn’t tell Jeanty, or any other officer, he had collected cash. He went home with it at the end of his shift.

Payton’s testimony echoed a statement he gave to investigators two days after taking the money.

“I wanted to submit it [to evidence control],” Payton said in court. “It slipped my mind. It really slipped my mind. I forgot all about it until the next day at the [Public Integrity Bureau].”

Fatiha Mrabti, the owner of the business, which leased cars to cabdrivers, said she noticed the missing money when she contacted a driver whose payment was missing and checked her security camera footage.

“I was shocked at the beginning,” Mrabti testified. “Then I called the police.”

Baltimore Police Sgt. Philip McMorris responded that morning to her business in response to her report of a burglary. When he arrived, Mrabti showed him the video, according to his body camera footage.

“That’s Payton,” McMorris said in a surprised voice.

He turned to Mrabti.

“We don’t tolerate this type of behavior. … This will be forwarded to internal affairs immediately,” McMorris said.

He was one of several officers who said during their testimony at Payton’s trial that police typically aren’t supposed to put evidence in their pockets and policy forbids them from taking it home.

Ball asked McMorris and other officers about Payton’s reputation and integrity. As Assistant State’s Attorney Kimberly Rothwell noted in closing arguments, none directly addressed his propensity for being honest.

“I believe that Officer Payton is a good officer. … I feel like he made a mistake,” McMorris testified.

Mrabti’s discovery and McMorris’ reporting of it up the chain of command triggered Payton’s suspension when he reported for his overnight shift later the same day. He would be called back to internal affairs two days later and asked to give a statement.

During his interview, Payton said his attorney advised him not to speak to detectives, but waived his right to remain silent, according to video of it played at trial.

“I don’t know if I should stop or continue, but I got nothing to hide. Let’s go through with this,” Payton told an investigator before diving into the events.

Ball argued to Bryant that his client’s willingness to speak was evidence that his client was being honest. He also said Payton never intended to steal, but was guilty of an honest mistake.

The judge said she didn’t find Payton credible, finding that the evidence showed he acted with the “purpose of depriving the owner of the property.”

“He picked up that money and put it in his left side pocket,” Bryant said. “He took it. He secreted it.”

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