The Maryland Court of Appeals, the state’s highest court, heard oral arguments Friday in a case that will determine whether internal investigation files related to racial profiling complaints lodged against state police officers are public records subject to disclosure under the Maryland Public Information Act.
In the case of Maryland Department of State Police v. Maryland State Conference of NAACP Branches, the police department is appealing a lower court ruling that it must release the documents, which the NAACP has requested under the Public Information Act.
The two parties entered into a federal consent decree in 2003 requiring the state police to take steps to combat racial profiling by its officers. However, in 2007, the NAACP became concerned that the police department was not taking decisive steps to address racial profiling and sued under the state's Public Information Act to obtain copies of the records related to any internal investigations.
On appeal before the high court Friday, Maryland assistant state attorney Steven Sullivan argued that the complaint files qualify as “personnel records” within the meaning of the Public Information Act, which would exempt the documents from public disclosure. He said the department has already turned over all documentation the NAACP is entitled to under the law.
Sullivan argued that “a complaint filed is different from a record filed about the complaint,” meaning that while the state police department has provided the NAACP with information regarding claims of racial profiling, such as the date and location where alleged incidents occurred, the NAACP is not entitled to internal investigations or filings regarding complaints against individual officers.
Seth Rosenthal, attorney for the NAACP, argued the group is not interested in identifying individual officers, but that the case “is and always has been about the conduct of the state police as an agency.” He maintained that reports provided to the NAACP under the consent decree do not show whether the state police took any specific action to investigate complaints of racial profiling.
“These records reflect upon the conduct of the state police as an agency. How can those be personnel records?” Rosenthal said.
Rosenthal also argued that even if the court were to assume that the complaints were “personnel records” under the Public Information Act, it still required that they be released to the NAACP in redacted form. He also argued that state police officers “do not carry with them a reasonable expectation to privacy” when it comes to incidents occurring during traffic stops.
On rebuttal, Sullivan argued that no legislative mandate exists that would make police records available to the public and that “it is clear these officers understood that these internal affairs records would maintain confidentiality.”
Sullivan also expressed concern that even if documents were redacted to eliminate personal information, it may still be relatively easy to determine a person’s identity because many agencies only have a few employees. The Public Information Act applies to every public employee in the state of Maryland, “of which I’m one,” he said.
Judges for the high court thoroughly questioned arguments brought by both sides Friday. Judge Joseph F. Murphy Jr. criticized the state police’s assertion that the records should be kept confidential, saying, “It’s almost silly to say you can’t have information about complaints made by citizens.” He also said that this issue “should have been squared away in federal court” when the consent decree was enacted.
Judge Glenn T. Harrell Jr. agreed that redacting the records would remove any privacy concerns officers might have, saying, “If you redact the name of an individual, then you’re neutering the [complaint file] from being the personnel record of an individual.”
Judge Murphy also questioned the NAACP’s arguments, saying he was “not sure there’s that much of an inconsistency” in the assertion that records reflecting the conduct of the police department could also be considered “personnel records.” He also said that the NAACP does not need to see “every line within those records” in order to determine whether the state police actually made efforts to combat racial profiling.
The Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press, along with several other news organizations, filed a friend-of-the-court brief in the case urging the Court of Appeals to uphold the lower court's ruling that such documents are not "personnel records" under the Public Information Act and must be disclosed upon request. David S. Wachen of the law firm of Shulman Rogers Gandal Pordy & Ecker, P.A., who served as Maryland counsel for the brief, partnered with the Reporters Committee.