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Top court: State police must release internal records of racial profiling complaints

The Maryland State Police must release records of racial-profiling complaints filed within the department and the department’s response to them, the state’s highest court held Thursday.

The Court of Appeals upheld a Baltimore County judge’s decision ordering police to issue the documents with names and personal information redacted.

The Maryland State Conference of NAACP Branches had requested records under the Maryland Public Information Act to look at whether police were investigating complaints about officers relying on race when pulling people over for traffic stops and searches. Litigation between the NAACP and state police over “driving while black” cases has been ongoing since the early 1990s.

“I was ecstatic,” said Gerald Stansbury, president of the Maryland State Conference. “We are just glad the Court of Appeals took this position. We feel like it sets a precedent. It makes sure reports are handled and taken seriously. Now we can hear back from the Maryland State Police about what actions are taken and when complaints are filed.”

The state police and the state Office of the Attorney General, which represented the state police in the case, both said they are still reviewing the court’s opinion and declined to comment on the decision.

“No one has ever been able to see what the state police does to investigate police that are racially profiling,” said an attorney for the NAACP, Seth A. Rosenthal of Venable LLP in Washington. “Today changes all that. … It’s a really great ruling for the principle of open government.”

Thursday’s decision is a landmark in a decades-long battle between the state police and the NAACP over accusations of racial profiling in police traffic stops and searches.

“We want transparency, and I think the police want transparency,” Stansbury said. “I think it’s a relationship when they can share with us.”

While the court’s decision is good news for the NAACP for the short term, the long-term effect of the opinion is less clear, said media lawyer Nathan Siegel of Levine Sullivan Koch & Schulz LLP in Washington.

“There have been a lot of efforts by state agencies to deny public information requests by calling documents personnel records,” said Siegel, who also teaches at the University of Maryland Francis King Carey School of Law. “This decision does say that even if something might be a personnel record, if it can be released without disclosing the identification of a particular individual, then it should be. I think that’s helpful.”

Still, some questions remain unanswered, Siegel said — like whether the documents could be made public if the state had argued that they were exempt because they were internal investigation records.

“Going forward,” Siegel said, “whether those types of records could or could not be protected hasn’t really been answered.”

After a 10-year legal battle between the NAACP and state police, a federal court issued a consent order in 2003 requiring police to investigate complaints of racial profiling and submit quarterly reports on the complaints.

The NAACP filed public information requests with the police department in 2007, in order to determine whether the police were complying with the consent order.

“Part of the consent decree was intended to make sure when the state police receive complaints, they were meaningfully addressed and investigated,” Rosenthal said. “The only way to ensure that was happening was to actually see the records.”

While the police provided some records requested by the NAACP, the department refused to give out any documents related to complaints on racial profiling filed with its internal affairs department.

The police argued that the records fell under an exemption in the Maryland Public Information Act allowing custodians of records to deny the release of personnel records.

The NAACP, meanwhile, said it was not seeking private, individual information but facts about how management in the police department was responding to racial profiling complaints.

The Court of Special Appeals upheld the circuit court’s order to release the documents with redactions in February 2010 and the case went before the Court of Appeals in November 2010.

At that time, the police argued that both redacted and unredacted records were exempt from release, saying eliminating names would not automatically make them public records. They also said blacking out names of the troopers would not sufficiently mask their identities.

The NAACP, meanwhile, argued that the law’s exception for personnel records was intended to protect personal information like missed work days and test scores, not for the complaint records they sought.

“As long as we have an understanding when those issues happen, if they take the names out, that’s fine, as long as we know they take serious action and there are consequences,” Stansbury said. “As long as we hear what those consequences are as a result, I think we should be OK.”

About a dozen news organizations, including The Daily Record, joined a brief written by the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press that was filed for the case with the Court of Appeals. The brief said blocking internal records from release to the public would block journalists from holding public officials accountable.

A unanimous Court of Appeals ruled that after names and identifying information are removed from documents, the records no longer fall under the category of personnel records and are therefore public information.

“After the names of State Police troopers, the names of complainants and all identifying information are redacted, the records clearly do not fall within the statutory language of ‘records of an individual,’” the court wrote in its opinion. “There would be no individual identified in the redacted records.”

WHAT THE COURT HELD

Case:

Maryland State Police v. Maryland State Conference of NAACP Branches, No. 41, September Term 2010. Argued Nov. 5, 2010. Decided January 24, 2013. Opinion by Eldridge, J., retired, spec. assigned.

Issue:

Can Maryland State Police deny the release of records documenting internal investigations into racial profiling complaints because they are personnel records even when names and personal information is redacted?

Holding:

No, the documents, when redacted, are considered public record under the Maryland Public Information Act and can be released to the public.

Counsel:

Steve M. Sullivan, Office of the Attorney General, for appellant; Seth A. Rosenthal of Venable LLP in Washington, for appellee.

RecordFax 13-0124-20 (21 pages).

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