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Wilner: Police officer Case Search rule change an ‘honest mistake’

Court of Appeals schedules emergency hearing for Tuesday

The chair of Maryland’s rules committee told the Court of Appeals on Monday a rule change removing police officers’ names from online court records was an “honest mistake.”

Retired Judge Alan M. Wilner, who chairs the committee, said the recommendation of the rule change “a mistake that never should have occurred” and said the deleted language can be restored on an emergency basis if the court wishes.

The Court of Appeals has scheduled an emergency meeting Tuesday afternoon to consider amendments to the rule change.

“It was an honest mistake…. for which I humbly apologize,” Wilner wrote.

After the change was highlighted last week, the Maryland Judiciary issued a statement Friday afternoon defending the transparency of the process and stressing that the change was for officer safety.

But David Rocah, staff attorney with the ACLU of Maryland, said the explanation Monday was “dramatically different, to put it mildly, than Friday’s defensive statement.”

Rocah was critical of the change last week, and said Monday the incident has made it clear that the process of changing the Maryland Rules “is not as transparent and inclusive” as it should be.

The Standing Committee on Rules of Practice and Procedure last summer struck an exception to rules governing Maryland Case Search which, as altered, shielded officer names from “remote access.” The Court of Appeals approved it following an opportunity for public comment, but members of the public did not become widely aware of it until Thursday when reports emerged that officer names were no longer searchable through the online database.

Wilner, in his letter Monday, included a summary of what he could piece together about the change since it came to light, explaining the committee received communications from police organizations concerned about the disclosure of full names of officers who were designated “non-party witnesses” in Case Search and found merit in the concern.

A subcommittee proposed only last names, badge numbers and employing agencies be disclosed as part of a broader discussion on a Case Search-specific rule, but Wilner said that rule was ultimately rejected.

“I have been unable, so far, to locate specific background material regarding the deletion of the language in Rule 16-910(b)(3),” Wilner wrote, but once the Case Search rule was rejected, the language should have been conformed to the proposed new rule, which only limited police information rather than removing it.

“It should have been caught, and, had it been, the current problem would not have arisen,” Wilner wrote.

Rocah on Monday praised the court for acting quickly to potentially correct a mistake but said Wilner’s explanation “seems to also telegraph an intent to move to a last name-only policy,” which is “equally absurd and irrational and not grounded in legitimate policy considerations.”

Police are not the same as other non-party witnesses involved in a case, Rocah added, because they are public employees doing their job and have no privacy interest in their full name or the fact that they are testifying in a case.

“I think if (Tuesday) they adopted a last-name only rule without a full opportunity to hear the public’s views, that would be equally a travesty,” he said.

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