Rights groups argue profiling case

ACLU, NAACP want access to racial complaints, agency's investigations from state police

January 29, 2008|By Laura Barnhardt | Laura Barnhardt,Sun reporter

In continuing litigation against the Maryland State Police over allegations of racial profiling, a lawyer for two civil rights organizations told a Baltimore County Circuit judge yesterday that the police agency should allow public inspection of racial complaints and records that show what the agency did to investigate them.

"We're not looking for information about a particular trooper," Hector G. Bladuell, an attorney from the Venable law firm working for the American Civil Liberties Union of Maryland and the Maryland State Conference of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, said during a hearing yesterday. "We're looking for the steps they've taken as an institution."

But the state attorney general's office says that the Maryland State Police have provided detailed information about racial profiling complaints, including the race and gender of those making the accusations and of those troopers against whom the allegations are made.

"The state police have bent over backward to provide the information sought in a timely manner," Betty A. Stemley, an assistant attorney general, said in her arguments in court, adding that the state police were justified in denying public access to personnel records.

Judge Timothy J. Martin did not immediately settle the dispute about the ACLU and NAACP's request for documents under the Maryland Public Information Act in 2005.

Before ruling, Martin said he wanted to see a sample of quarterly reports about racial profiling complaints that have been provided by the state police to the civil rights organizations, as part of an agreement to settle "driving while black" claims.

As part of that agreement, made in a 2003 consent decree, the state police made sweeping changes in traffic-stop procedures, including documenting the race of drivers stopped and obtaining written permission before searching vehicles - to answer accusations of racial profiling and settle a federal lawsuit against the law enforcement agency.

The 2003 consent decree is set to expire in May.

But the ACLU says that black and Hispanic motorists continue to be stopped by troopers at a disproportionate rate and that none of the 80 racial profiling complaints filed in the past five years by motorists has been sustained by the state police.

In September, the ACLU of Maryland filed a lawsuit on behalf of the state NAACP branch against the state police, alleging that the law enforcement agency is withholding information on how complaints of racial profiling are investigated and is charging excessively for records requested under the Maryland Public Information Act.

The state police estimated the cost of copying and staff time to collect the requested records, including data collection analysis of traffic stops and training materials, would be more than $55,000. The agency denied requests by the ACLU and NAACP for a waiver of the fees and to bring in a private vendor to make copies less expensively.

In its court filings, the attorney general's office says that the state police made more than 6,000 pages of material available for inspection. And to save costs, the agency used a volunteer to make copies and produced some records electronically on a disc, according to court papers.

The ACLU paid $9,913.58 for 2,980 copies, preparation of materials and the disc, according to the court filings. The group also offered to accept redacted documents, Bladuell said.

The redacted records would still allow individual trooper identification, the assistant attorney general wrote in court papers, calling the information requests a "fishing expedition."

laura.barnhardt@baltsun.com

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