In the early morning of Sept. 20, 2023, Baltimore Police Officer Eric Payton responded as backup to help check on a business on Belair Road near Southern Avenue in Northeast Baltimore.

The front door to Soy Transportation Inc. was unlocked and partially open. Meanwhile, music could be heard coming from inside the building.

When Payton was looking to make sure no one was inside the business, he said, he spotted what he thought was a piece of trash on the ground. He said he kicked the object and realized that it contained cash. So, he picked up the money and put it in his pocket.

Payton said he never intended to keep the money and planned on submitting it to evidence at the end of his shift. Instead, he said, he became preoccupied with finding contact information for the business owner.

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Payton also said he turned on his body camera — he’d had issues in the past with it malfunctioning — and did not realize that it was not recording. Surveillance cameras in the business, though, captured what happened.

“It just slipped my mind,” Payton testified on Wednesday in Baltimore Circuit Court. “I honestly forgot.”

Circuit Judge Yvette M. Bryant found Payton, 46, of Parkville, a more than seven-year veteran, guilty of theft and misconduct in office at the end of a bench trial. She described his testimony as not the least bit credible, stating that he absolutely did not forget about the money.

“It absolutely defies logic,” Bryant said, “and common sense.”

Bryant said the case came down to whether she believed his testimony or what she saw with her own eyes.

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Assistant State’s Attorney Kimberly Rothwell said Payton was working as a uniformed police officer and had been tasked with protecting the business when he stole an envelope containing money.

“He intended to keep it,” Rothwell said. “He took the money on purpose and didn’t return it.”

Throughout the trial, there were discrepancies in testimony about how much money he stole. The number ranged from $111 to $126.

Officer Francisco Jeanty — whom the judge called “as innocent as the day is long” — testified that Payton did not tell him that he’d picked up an envelope with money in it.

Police, he said, don’t put evidence in their pocket.

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The owner of Soy Transportation Inc., Fatiha Mrabti, said she came in later that morning and noticed that one of the drivers who leases vehicles from the business had not dropped off money.

Mrabti testified that she called the driver, and he reported that he had paid. So, she checked the surveillance cameras, which showed Payton picking up the envelope and putting it in his pocket.

“I was shocked in the beginning,” Mrabti said. “I called the police.”

The driver, Brian Williams, corroborated her account.

Prosecutors requested and obtained a warrant for Williams when he did not show up for the trial, and sheriff’s deputies later escorted him in handcuffs into the courtroom in the Elijah E. Cummings Courthouse. His testimony only lasted a few minutes.

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Meanwhile, Sgt. Philip McMorris testified that he went to the business, spoke with the owner and reviewed the surveillance video. He recorded it with his body camera and cellphone.

“We don’t tolerate this type of behavior,” McMorris said on his body camera video. “It’s going to be dealt with as soon as I leave here.”

When Payton came to work later that night, he was told to report to the Public Integrity Bureau and suspended with pay. He was charged with theft and misconduct in office two days later and suspended without pay.

Payton waived his Miranda rights and gave a statement. He repeatedly stated that he had nothing to hide and maintained that he forgot about the money.

“It was just an honest mistake,” he said.

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Chaz Ball, Payton’s attorney, said his client did not dispute most of the evidence in the case.

Instead, Ball referenced the famous line in the 1967 film “Cool Hand Luke“: “What we have here is a failure to communicate.”

Payton, he said, is a father of four who completed training and worked overtime before his shift. He “completely forgot” about the money, Ball said.

Law enforcement, he said, did not try to get his client’s side of the story before suspending him and filing charges.

Payton remains suspended without pay, said Lindsey Eldridge, a spokesperson for the Baltimore Police Department, in an email. He’s scheduled to be sentenced on Feb. 5.

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