Maryland top court hears racial-profiling records case

NAACP seeks documents detailing how state police handled complaints lodged against troopers

November 06, 2010|By Andrea F. Siegel, The Baltimore Sun

Maryland's highest court heard arguments Friday on whether the Maryland State Police must give its internal records to the NAACP to show how the police investigated drivers' complaints that troopers practiced racial profiling.

The organization has sought the records under the state's Public Information Act since 2007, after reports showed that police found none of five years' worth of "driving while black" complaints valid.

"We just want to make sure they are taking these complaints seriously. We have them policing themselves," said Gerald Stansbury, president of the Maryland National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, after listening to arguments at the Court of Appeals. He said opening the investigation documents "will put some confidence in people."

While judges parsed the law in their questions, the attorneys also pointed to what is at stake for each side.

Much of the case hinges on whether the documents generated by the 94 complaints are personnel records and must be kept confidential, as the state police maintain.

The NAACP is arguing that without seeing how the complaints were handled, there's no way to know if the agency took seriously the investigations ordered by a federal court, or whether they simply threw the complaints in the trash.

Not only is the confidentiality of internal investigations into claims of police misconduct at stake, but how the court rules could compromise the personnel files of 330,000 public employees, Assistant Attorney General Steven M. Sullivan told the Court of Appeals.

"It could affect everyone that works for state and local government," he said.

Even with identifying information redacted — as lower courts ordered for the state police records — identities can be discerned, especially in a small office, Sullivan said.

"It's not going to take very long to figure out which one is the secretary, which one is the law clerk and which is the judge," he said.

But Seth A. Rosenthal, arguing for the NAACP, said the focus is not on individual troopers.

"It has been and always was about the conduct of a state agency," Rosenthal told the court.

Rosenthal also said the court could sidestep deciding whether or not the documents are personnel records and simply order police to turn them over with names and other identifying information removed.

Chief Judge Robert M. Bell suggested that the issue of whether the investigatory files are personnel records is why the court agreed to hear the appeal.

The case has roots in a trooper's traffic stop 18 years ago of a black family coming home from a funeral and his request to search their car. That led to one lawsuit that was settled.

A federal lawsuit by the American Civil Liberties Union ended in a consent decree that included with police agreeing to report on racial-profiling complaints and the outcome of internal investigations. When no complaints were upheld, the ACLU sought details of the investigations and was turned down.

The NAACP then made a Public Information Act request, which landed in a Baltimore County courtroom. There, a judge ruled the material constituted personnel records, but identifying information could be redacted to protect the privacy of individuals. Both sides appealed. The Court of Special Appeals said the documents were not personnel records and ordered their release, again with identifying information removed. Police appealed.

There is no deadline for the top court to rule in the case.

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