NAACP sees win in court ruling on race profiling

February 03, 2010|By Andrea F. Siegel

The state's second-highest court handed the NAACP a victory Tuesday in the long-running "driving while black" issue, ordering the Maryland State Police to turn over records showing how the department dealt with complaints of racial profiling by its troopers.

"The message it sends is that we've got someone else to monitor them, to watch the store," said Gerald Stansbury, president of the Maryland Conference of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, which sought the records.

None of the 100 complaints of racial profiling over five years had been upheld in state police internal investigations, according to the American Civil Liberties Union, which also is involved in the case.

"The public has a right to know exactly what the state police has done to investigate complaints of racial profiling - whether those complaints were being meaningfully investigated, given that none of them had been sustained," said Seth A. Rosenthal, an attorney for the NAACP.

He hailed the ruling as "rock-solid public policy rooted in the law" and a win for "open, transparent and accountable government."

The Maryland attorney general's office will decide whether to appeal to the state's top court after reviewing the ruling.

Assistant Attorney General David R. Moore said Tuesday that the ruling interprets what constitutes personnel records under the Public Information Act and can be cited as precedent.

"It impacts all state employees," said Raquel Guillory, spokeswoman for the Attorney General's Office.

The decision overturned part of a ruling by a Baltimore County judge, who said the records sought were personnel documents. But it left intact the end result: NAACP lawyers can have the documents but with the names of troopers redacted.

The background of the case stretches back nearly two decades.

Robert L. Wilkins, a black lawyer who now works with Rosenthal, was stopped by a state trooper in 1992 while driving home from a funeral, igniting the "driving while black" issue in Maryland. He sued police and settled.

That led the NAACP and ACLU to file a lawsuit in 1998 alleging racial profiling in traffic stops and searches. That lawsuit was settled in 2003 with a five-year consent decree, with terms including officer training and the police providing results of racial profiling investigations.

The ACLU contends that the racial breakdown of drivers stopped from 2003 to 2008 was about the same as it was in 2002: Minorities were targeted in 70 percent of the stops, and 45 percent of the drivers were black. Troopers found drugs on minorities no more frequently than on white drivers, the ACLU says.

Failing to get 10,000 pages of documents about the investigations into the complaints through the federal case, the NAACP sued in Baltimore County Circuit Court under the Maryland Public Information Act.

The case was atypical in that it was argued twice last year - once before a panel of the court and then, unusually, before the full court.

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