By Stephen Janis, Special to the AFRO

A Baltimore police officer whose internal disciplinary record has been the subject of a contentious court battle over its admissibility as evidence, was served with a flurry of subpoenas by prosecutors this week in an effort to compel him to appear in court after he retires. It’s an unusual move sources tell the AFRO, that may be aimed at putting the officer back in court to face further scrutiny over past allegations of misconduct.

Prosecutors served Sergeant Joseph Donato with roughly 17 subpoenas from the State’s Attorney’s Office of Marilyn Mosby, related to a variety of drug and gun cases that remain open in which he was the arresting officer or a witness.

Baltimore police commissioner Kevin Davis, pictured with Mayor Catherine Pugh, has been dogged by multiple allegations of corruption within his department. (Courtesy photo)

But the subpoenas also set the stage for another potential showdown between defense attorneys and the courts over the admissibility of internal complaints lodged against Donato, that lawyers for a variety of defendants have long argued should be allowed as evidence to challenge his testimony in court.

In March, the Baltimore Sun reported a group of defense attorneys won access to roughly 30 sustained complaints against Donato ranging from excessive force to false arrests lodged between 2007 and 2013. The order, by Circuit Court Judge John S. Nugent, paved the way for Donato to face questions about his record in open court which occurred later that month.

But one of the defense attorneys who led the fight for the release of the disciplinary records says the veteran officer has missed recent court dates.

“In one of my cases a prosecutor said they couldn’t find him,” Deborah K. Levi, a public defender told the AFRO.  “We were told they were unable to locate him.”

Levi says the case involving gun charges was postponed.

Mosby’s office would not elaborate on what prompted the move to issue formal subpoenas, or if they are related to cases in which Donato failed to appear. Generally, officers receive a summons to appear in court however, once Donato retires attorneys say he could technically avoid cases in which other officers involved are witnesses.

In a written statement provided to the AFRO, Caron Brace, spokesperson for Mosby, said prosecutors want to resolve a backlog of charges awaiting adjudication to ensure prosecutors can move forward with cases that have been lingering in court.

“We attempt to exhaust all options available to ensure the appearance of material witnesses in our pursuit of justice for the victims in Baltimore,” Brace stated,

Donato’s attorney, Chaz Ball, declined to comment on the timing of the subpoenas or if his client had failed to appear for any recent cases. In the past Ball publicly defended Donato saying he had never been convicted of any serious internal charges.

Generally the outcome of internal probes has been considered off limits to the public or defense attorneys due to the state privacy laws governing personnel records.

But in Donato’s case judges have sided with defense attorneys who have argued his testimony is tainted. Indeed, court records reveal Donato has been sued in both federal and state court for a variety of cases of excessive force and false imprisonment.

But his most public and controversial case involved the arrest of former Raven’s rookie defensive back Tony Fein.

Fein was charged with assaulting Donato after he was arrested while eating at Johnny Rockets at the Inner Harbor in the summer of 2009. Police were summoned by a security guard who reported spotting a metallic object being passed among Fein’s friends, which later turned out to be a cell phone. Donato reported that Fein shoved him during the arrest and the incident received national attention.

The charges were later dropped, but Fein, an Iraq War veteran, was eventually released by the Ravens at the end of the preseason. Later that year Fein collapsed at a friend’s home in Port Orchard Washington and died.  The Kitsap County, Washington coroner ruled his death an accidental drug overdose.

For now prosecutors have not released details on which specific cases are subject to the subpoenas or how the controversy over Donato’s record will affect their strategy in court.

Defense attorneys who have cases involving Donato were also reluctant to talk on the record.

The only thing both sides seem to agree upon is cases will not go quietly, and the controversy over how much an officer’s past can be used as evidence at trial will remain an openly contentious issue that will not be resolved easily.