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High court to rule on disclosure of racial profiling complaints

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  1. Freedom of Information
Maryland’s high court has agreed to hear a case about whether the state police department is required to disclose complaints…

Maryland’s high court has agreed to hear a case about whether the state police department is required to disclose complaints of racial profiling under the state’s public information laws.

The case stems from a dispute between the Maryland National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, which sought access to the records in 2007 under the Maryland Public Information Act, and the Maryland State Police, which denied the request, claiming that the complaints were exempt as "personnel records."

In February, the intermediate appellate court overruled a trial court’s 2008 decision and sided with the NAACP, finding that internal affairs investigatory records into racial profiling complaints are not personnel records and must be produced, so long as the documents do not involve an ongoing investigation and information identifying individual officers is redacted. The Maryland high court will also consider whether the NAACP has a right to inspect and copy the documents.

The state police appealed and Chief Judge Robert M. Bell announced on June 9 that the court will hear the case in November. The Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press and other media organizations plan to file a friend-of-the-court brief that supports the disclosure of the records.

“Stripped down to its essence, the MSP’s opposing position is that the General Assembly intended the State of Maryland to be one of the most secretive jurisdictions, with one of the most restrictive public information statutes, in the entire country,” argued Seth A. Rosenthal, attorney for the NAACP, in the appellate brief.

Lower courts have relied on the fact that the NAACP requested access to records directly pertaining to troopers’ conduct during traffic stops made in the line of duty, not individual trooper’s names, medical conditions, personal relationships or scholastic history, in reaching their decisions.

In October 2008, a federal judge in Maryland ruled in a related civil rights case on what documents the police were required to disclose.

“Although a complaint may possibly indirectly relate to an individual trooper’s hiring, promotion, discipline, or dismissal, the relationship between a complaint and such an employment action is too attenuated to convert a complaint into a personnel record,” wrote Judge Frederick P. Stamp, Jr.

The Maryland intermediate appellate court agreed.

“Racial profiling complaints against Maryland State Troopers do not involve private matters concerning intimate details of the trooper’s private life. Instead, such complaints involve events occurring while the trooper is on duty and engaged in public service,” wrote Judge James P. Salmon in the majority opinion.

“As such, the files at issue concern public actions … which are exactly the types of material the Act was designed to allow the public to see,” he continued.

Two other judges filed concurring opinions.