NAACP gets document access

Judge rules it can review state police profiling information

June 28, 2008|By Nicole Fuller | Nicole Fuller,Sun reporter

The NAACP can review Maryland State Police documents alleging racial profiling that the organization had been seeking, a judge ruled yesterday - a victory for the civil rights organization in a battle that has raged more than a decade.

Baltimore County Circuit Judge Timothy J. Martin decided that a panel of three lawyers selected by the civil rights organization's Maryland conference will have 120 days to review the documents and select those they would like copied. The names of the officers and the complainants will be redacted from the copied documents.

"I believe the fair approach is to find a middle ground," Martin said. "I know state police fear a precedent, but I believe the NAACP is entitled to disclosure of these documents. ... I know the state police are not going to be happy with the statements I'm making."

Betty A. Stemley, an assistant attorney general representing the state police, had argued that the documents were not public record and should be considered private personnel documents.

"We're definitely going to comply with what the court has proposed today," she said after the court ruling.

Stemley declined to comment further, saying that she needed to discuss future strategy, including an appeal, with her client. A state police spokesman did not return a call seeking comment.

The state conference of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People and the American Civil Liberties Union of Maryland had alleged that the police agency had withheld information on how complaints of racial profiling are investigated and had charged excessive fees for records requested under the Maryland Public Information Act in a lawsuit filed last year.

Brian L. Schwalb, lead attorney for the NAACP and ACLU, said he was pleased with the decision, which he called a "compromise."

"We are not on a witch hunt against troopers," Schwalb said.

The judge's decision comes 13 years after the ACLU filed what has become known as the "driving while black" lawsuit, which was settled in April and awarded about $400,000 to six plaintiffs who alleged racial profiling when they were pulled over by state troopers on Interstate 95.

"I think it's a step forward for sure," said Deborah Jeon, legal director for the Maryland chapter of the ACLU. "The resolution that the judge reached today, we offered many months ago. So I'm a little disappointed that it took this much time to reach an agreement on this. But it's definitely a positive step."

The state police made sweeping changes in traffic-stop procedures as part of a 2003 federal consent decree - 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 state attorney general's office has said that the 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 also had provided quarterly reports about racial-profiling complaints to the civil rights organizations.

But NAACP officials said several requests for documents were denied, including requests for records related to the agency's internal investigations of racial-profiling complaints, prompting the civil rights organization and the ACLU to sue on Sept. 26 last year.

They argued that they wanted a mechanism to independently monitor whether the agency had made progress.

Also at issue were the fees for copies of the documents - 75 cents per page - a price that NAACP officials called unreasonable. The judge said he would rule later on the issue of the amounts charged for the records.

Martin, who said he reviewed the approximately 8,000 pages of documents alleging racial bias from 2003 to 2007, said he had been "struggling" to reach a decision, finding merit in the aim of the NAACP to have access to public information and in the state police's desire for privacy.

The judge rejected the NAACP's request to view records regarding complaints against the state police and individual troopers outside of racial profiling, which they said would be a way to find "a whistle-blower" to "shed light" on the agency's actions, referring to the request as "mixing apples with oranges."

Jenkins Odoms Jr., the immediate past president of the NAACP's state conference, said: "We're not here to try to prosecute any of the troopers or the Maryland State Police. We just want the necessary information and data to make sure they are appropriately following the rules and procedures that were set up for them to follow."

nicole.fuller@baltsun.com

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