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Judge orders Salisbury to release documents in use-of-force settlement

A Wicomico County Circuit Court judge on Tuesday ordered Salisbury to produce documents related to a confidential settlement of a police excessive force lawsuit.

Judge W. Newton Jackson III ordered the release of the records within 10 days, according to a news release from the ACLU of Maryland, which sought the documents along with the Real News Network.

“We are pleased the court’s rulings this summer favor the transparency that is critical to accountability in our public institutions and an informed citizenry,” said Charles D. Austin of Crowel & Moring LLP in Washington, a lawyer for the ACLU, said in a statement.

The plaintiffs filed Maryland Public Information Act requests related to the resolution of a lawsuit brought by four Salisbury University students. The MPIA requests asked for the settlement agreement, correspondence between the parties and officials about terms, documents related to budgetary approval and other records. The city responded it had none of the documents requested.

Jackson denied a motion to dismiss the lawsuit in May, rejecting the city’s argument that it never prepared or possessed documents about the settlement because the litigation was handled by Local Government Insurance Trust. Jackson ruled the LGIT was an agent of the city.

The city also claimed various privileges exempted the requested documents from the MPIA but Jackson determined it was premature to determine if that was the case at the motion to dismiss stage.

“Were this Court to accept Defendants’ argument, then any government entity could shield public records from the public’s sight by transacting through their insurer or attorney,” he wrote.

Nick Steiner, an attorney with the ACLU, said the judge’s ruling Tuesday was not surprising.

“I think we were kind of expecting this order to come, especially considering this judge’s previous ruling on the motion to dismiss,” he said.

Though Salisbury filed an opposition to the motion for summary judgment, according to the ACLU, representatives for the city did not attend Tuesday’s hearing to argue against the motion.

Steiner said he believes there was a miscommunication and counsel for Salisbury did not intend to miss the hearing.

“It’s possible that they may file a motion to reconsider, I think that’s a possibility,” he said.

Ernest I. “Skip” Cornbrooks IV, a lawyer for the city, declined to comment Wednesday. Cornbrooks is a partner at Karpinski, Colaresi & Carp P.A. in Baltimore.

The case is American Civil Liberties Union Foundation of Maryland et al. vs. City of Salisbury et al., C-22-CV-17-000440.

In the underlying case, the plaintiffs were in a group of about 25 people who had congregated in a parking lot by a restaurant near the school in May 2014 when police officers arrived to disperse the crowd. As the students headed back toward the school via a tunnel under Route 13, they claimed an officer grabbed one of the plaintiffs and threw him to the ground without provocation. The three other plaintiffs were similarly attacked, according to the lawsuit.

Three of the plaintiffs were charged with failing to obey and held overnight in jail but ultimately were found not guilty in separate trials.

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