ANNAPOLIS — Maryland’s highest court voted unanimously Tuesday to reinstate language in the Maryland Rules exempting police officers’ names from shielding in an online case database.
The Court of Appeals judges signed an order making the change effective immediately after an emergency public meeting. It is expected to be implemented by Friday on the Maryland Judiciary Case Search website.
Chief Judge Mary Ellen Barbera praised the meeting attendees Tuesday and said the deletion was an error with, at best, an unintended impact.
“Sometimes small mistakes can have big consequences and that’s what happened here,” Barbera said.
In a statement about the rule change Friday, the Maryland Judiciary called it part of a commitment to balancing the public’s interest in access and officer safety concerns and maintained the change was made transparently and through a process open to the public and the press.
But Barbera on Tuesday referred to the deletion as “an error, an honest mistake, an amendment not intended to be included that went unnoticed until the programming changes in Case Search were implemented.”
Barbera said the court took responsibility for the problem because the court adopts rule changes.
“The buck stops here,” she said. “We are accountable. We will address the error.”
The Judiciary released a letter Monday from Judge Alan M. Wilner, chair of the Standing Committee on Rules of Practice and Procedure, who similarly called the change “a mistake that never should have occurred.”
The rules committee issued a report last year with draft rule changes that included striking an exception to rules governing Case Search. Without the exception, police officers’ names were shielded from remote access as nonparty witnesses. The Court of Appeals approved the change in June but members of the public did not become widely aware of it until last week, when reports emerged officer names were no longer searchable through the online database.
Attorneys, advocates and media representatives told the judges Tuesday how the removal of officer names impacts their work and called for a return to transparency.
Baltimore attorney Cary Hansel, who represents individuals in lawsuits against police, said Case Search is often the only way to identify possible defendants.
“Case Search is our first step and its critical in finding the names of officers,” he said.
Attorneys with Maryland Legal Aid and Maryland Volunteer Lawyers Service told the judges their expungement outreach has been stymied by the removal of officer names, which are required on forms.
Legal Aid attorney Sunny Desai said some courts reject an expungement form listing only “local law enforcement” as the arresting agency and waiver forms for charges less than three years old require the names of officers involved. Amy Petkovsek, advocacy director for Legal Aid, said attorneys were unable to assist many attendees at an expungement clinic Friday because necessary information was no longer available.
Software designed by MVLS attorney Matthew Stubenberg runs off of Case Search, so sudden changes introduce bugs in the program. Stubenberg asked for a return to the previous rule and for more notice in the future when something is being changed in Case Search.
“Software is very finicky and it’s built to do things in a particular way,” he said.
Tania Boardman, a senior at the University of Maryland, College Park, said the change “threatens the internal validity” of research being done by criminology students, some of which uses officer names.
Wilner, in his letter Monday, told the judges the change was made amid an overhaul of the rules in anticipation of a Case Search-specific rule. Part of that discussion included a proposal to include only first initials and last names for police officers in the database. The new rule was ultimately rejected but the deleted section was not replaced.
“It should have been caught, and, had it been, the current problem would not have arisen,” Wilner wrote.
Judge Sally D. Adkins on Tuesday questioned some advocates about a move to a system of shielding full names but the court ultimately reverted to the prior language in its entirety.
Hansel said full names are necessary to correctly identify officers in large police departments where, for example, “T. Smith” is insufficient to determine if the proper officer is being investigated and served. Petkovsek said Legal Aid would need courts to agree to accept waiver forms identifying officers only by a first initial and last name before supporting such a change but even then she could see an issue with common last names.[soundcloud url=”https://api.soundcloud.com/tracks/410086875″ params=”color=#ff5500&auto_play=false&hide_related=false&show_comments=true&show_user=true&show_reposts=false&show_teaser=true&visual=true” width=”100%” height=”300″ iframe=”true” /]