Maryland high court rules racial profiling complaints can be disclosed

Lilly Chapa | Freedom of Information | News | January 24, 2013

Maryland's highest court today ruled that redacted state police records of racial profiling complaints can be made public under the state’s Public Information Act in Maryland Department of State Police v. Maryland State Conference of NAACP Branches.

The ruling by the Maryland Court of Appeals could also affect the state's public record law more broadly, as other categories of exempt records could be released if certain portions are redacted, said Seth Rosenthal, an attorney representing the state NAACP coalition.

The police argued that the personnel records exemption to the records act required the entire record to be withheld, even though a provision of the act requires state agencies to redact certain exempt information if possible in order to disclose the requested documents.

Redacting personally identifying information means that the records no longer fall within the personnel records exemption, the court decided, and officers' names in the personnel documents should be redacted from the records to protect their privacy interests and adhere to the records act.

“If records can be redacted in such a way that the purposes of an exemption can be served, then the records need to be redacted and disclosed,” Rosenthal said.

The NAACP in 2007 filed a public records request for any documents and investigation information regarding complaints of racial profiling by Maryland police troopers. The state police denied the request, claiming that the investigation documents were personnel records, which are protected under law from disclosure.

The decision has set a precedent for how redacted confidential documents should be handled, Rosenthal said.

“The state’s Attorney General has forever taken the position that there are certain categories of records that are completely exempt from disclosure in Maryland, that they can’t be redacted,” Rosenthal said. “This opinion puts that position to bed. If [the documents] shed light on how the government is doing its job and can be reasonably redacted, then they should be redacted and disclosed.”

The department did give the NAACP reports detailing the complaints but refused to turn over information about how the state police addressed the complaints internally, prompting the NAACP lawsuit.

“We are not seeking the private, confidential personal information of particular troopers, but information on how the department at the institutional and management levels has responded to racial profiling complaints,” the NAACP stated in a 2007 letter to the department.

The circuit court judge ordered the state police to submit the documents to the court for review, but the department appealed the decision. The Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press submitted a friend-of-the-court brief in support of the NAACP.

“No one before today was able to see how the state police addressed, investigated and weighed complaints of racial profiling, and all that has changed,” Rosenthal said. “It’s a great day for the principle of open government because we can see how the state addresses complaints of racial profiling.”