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Transparency advocates sue Baltimore Law Department over police records requests

A new lawsuit claims that Baltimore’s Law Department is ignoring state public records law and improperly shielding police misconduct documents that should be made available for disclosure.

The suit brought by the transparency advocacy group Open Justice Baltimore argues that the department has engaged in a “pattern and practice” of obstructing the release of the records.

Open Justice Baltimore and two journalists who are also plaintiffs in the lawsuit have filed 21 public records requests involving Baltimore police and officer misconduct since December 2019, according to the complaint.

“The Baltimore Police Department and the Baltimore City Law Department have violated the law in their responses to every single request,” the plaintiffs wrote.

“Ultimately, not a single record has been handed over without a fight, which displays a true pattern and practice of obstructing disclosure and a failure to provide the public with what is already theirs as granted under the Maryland Public Information Act.”

The group is represented by Matthew Zernhelt, the legal director of the activist legal group Baltimore Action Legal Team.

The complaint claims the law department has used a variety of strategies to block the release of public records, including ignoring requests and deadlines, refusing to consider fee waiver requests, demanding huge fees in exchange for public records and offering information in unusable formats.

Open Justice Baltimore has made broad requests for officer misconduct records, which became more accessible to the public with the passage of Anton’s Law in 2021. Under Anton’s Law, internal police disciplinary records were no longer exempted from the Maryland Public Information Act under an exception for personnel records.

The change has led to a flood of requests for police misconduct records, and the responses from law enforcement agencies across Maryland have varied wildly. In March, the Maryland-Delaware-D.C. Press Association found that reporters and community groups have faced long waits and massive fee requests for the misconduct records.

Open Justice Baltimore’s lawsuit claims that in one case, after requesting officer misconduct files, the organization was told it needed to pay more than $1.3 million to access the records. In another case, Open Justice Baltimore was asked to pay more than $600,000, according to the complaint.

“The Law Department has long stayed out of public view, but now must be seen as an active player in protecting the corruption of BPD,” BALT said in a news release Thursday. “The Law Department has shown itself as only being interested in containing liability, never in making right the historic and ongoing harms of BPD.”

James Bentley, a spokesperson for Mayor Brandon Scott, did not return an email requesting comment on the lawsuit.

Open Justice Baltimore and BALT have repeatedly asked courts to step in over public records disputes. In February, Maryland’s Court of Special Appeals ruled that the Baltimore Police Department’s refusal to waive a $245,000 fee for public records related to officers’ use of force was arbitrary and capricious.

The appeals court also found in December that the Baltimore State’s Attorney’s Office was arbitrary and capricious in denying BALT’s request for a fee waiver when the organization asked for records related to police misconduct.