By Kathleen Kirby, Wiley Rein LLP
The Maryland Court of Appeals has ruled that redacted state police records of racial profiling complaints can be made public under the state’s Public Information Act (PIA). The case is significant because it dismisses the notion that certain categories of records exempt from disclosure cannot be redacted and released. RTDNA joined other news organizations in filing a friend-of-the-court brief, asserting that exempting the records relating to police conduct from disclosure would significantly impair journalists’ watchdog function.
The Maryland State Conference of NAACP Branches (NAACP) sought access to documents related to the investigation of racial profiling allegations lodged against the Maryland Department of State Police (State Police). The NAACP claimed that the records would allow it to verify whether the State Police were complying with a consent order designed to ensure that police officers did not rely on racial attributes when deciding whether to conduct a traffic stop and search.
The State Police refused to provide certain documents relating to “any complaint filed with or investigated by the Maryland State Police’s Department of Internal Affairs, including all complaints filed, all documents collected or created during the investigation of each complaint, and all documents reflecting the conclusion of each investigation.” The State Police claimed that these records were “personnel records,” and thus appropriately exempt from disclosure under the PIA.
NAACP took legal action, filing a complaint that the State Police had violated the PIA by refusing to allow the NAACP to inspect and copy the requested records. The NAACP asserted that it was “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.” After reviewing many of the records in question, the circuit court judge determined that they could be released if information pertaining to the identity of individual troopers were redacted. The State Police appealed.
Last week, Maryland’s highest court held that, after all identifying information is redacted, the records “do not fall within the statutory language of “record[s]” of an individual, and therefore the redacted version should not be exempt from disclosure under the PIA. Significantly, the court’s opinion stated that "the Public Information Act's strong preference for public access must be considered whenever a court is applying the particular provisions of the statute."