ANNAPOLIS, MD – The Maryland Court of Special Appeals today ordered the Maryland State Police (MSP) to release records of investigations into racial profiling complaints against police personnel. The decision by the full court overrules part of a decision by the Circuit Court of Baltimore County concluding that these records are "personnel records" under the Maryland Public Information Act (MPIA) and exempt from disclosure.
"Despite ongoing efforts to combat it, there can be no denying that racial profiling by police continues to persist in communities across the nation," said Reginald T. Shuford, senior staff attorney with the American Civil Liberties Union's Racial Justice Program. "Hopefully today's decision will set a powerful precedent for transparency that will enable any police department that illegally and unconstitutionally targets people of color to be held accountable."
The ruling comes in a lawsuit filed on behalf of the Maryland State Conference of NAACP Branches (NAACP) by the ACLU charging the MSP with violating the MPIA by improperly withholding documents showing whether it has meaningfully investigated complaints of racial profiling in the wake of a federal consent decree in the ACLU's "Driving While Black" litigation.
"The Court of Special Appeals has reinforced the fundamental right of the public to information that allows them to hold government agencies accountable and ensure that bad public policies, such as racial profiling, are addressed and not perpetuated," said Deborah Jeon, Legal Director for the ACLU of Maryland.
In 2003, the NAACP and the MSP entered into a consent decree stemming from racial profiling litigation initiated in the early 1990s. Despite the consent decree, however, there continued to be complaints from African-American motorists alleging racial profiling, and the data gathered continued to show large disparities between whites and non-whites in traffic stops and searches by the MSP. People of color were stopped and searched much more often, even though the MSP did not find drugs or other contraband on them any more frequently than when searching whites.
A key provision of the 2003 consent decree was an agreement by MSP to make the process of filing racial profiling complaints more user-friendly for motorists. MSP also agreed to thoroughly investigate all complaints.
"The ruling handed down by the Court of Special Appeals today is a true victory for the Maryland State Conference NAACP, the ACLU and for the citizens of Maryland," said Gerald Stansbury, president of the Maryland State Conference of NAACP Branches. "There have been reports of racial profiling all over the country, and this ruling will give us the ability to determine if and when reports and complaints of racial profiling are thoroughly investigated and handled appropriately."
Data collected in Maryland since 2003 shows that racial disparities regarding who is being searched by the MSP on Interstate 95 persist. Data from 2008 shows that minorities were about 70 percent of those searched on I-95, while whites comprised 30 percent of those searched. These percentages are almost exactly the same as for 2002, the year prior to the 2003 Consent Decree.
Since 2003, approximately 100 official complaints alleging racial profiling have been filed by minority motorists. The MSP has confirmed that not a single one of these complaints has been sustained following the requisite internal investigation. Thus, since 2003, no MSP trooper has ever been found to have engaged in racial profiling, and no disciplinary action has ever been taken against a trooper for racial profiling.
In February 2007, the NAACP, represented by Venable LLP and the ACLU, filed a request under the MPIA to obtain the investigative records created in connection with the racial profiling complaints filed since 2003. The NAACP asked for the records with all information identifying the motorists and the troopers redacted. The point was not to target particular troopers, but rather to see whether the MSP was truly investigating the complaints and taking seriously its responsibility to eliminate racial profiling by its troopers.
The MSP refused to turn over the documents, even in redacted form, saying that they were "personnel records" exempt from disclosure under the MPIA. In September 2007, the NAACP filed suit, and in June 2008, Baltimore County Circuit Court Judge Timothy Martin ruled that the records should be disclosed in redacted form, and that doing so would not violate the personnel records exemption of the MPIA. Rather than turn over the records, the MSP appealed the ruling. In the appeal, the Attorney General, on behalf of the MSP, took the position that the investigative records are "personnel records" exempt from disclosure and that they may never be disclosed – even in redacted form.
"This is not simply a victory for the NAACP, it is a victory for the principle of open government," said Seth Rosenthal of the law firm Venable LLP. "The court correctly found that the law requires, rather than prohibits, the state police to disclose to the public exactly what it does to investigate complaints of racial profiling by its troopers."
Attorneys on the case include Shuford of the ACLU Racial Justice Program, Jeon of the ACLU of Maryland and Rosenthal, Robert Wilkins and Brian Schwalb of the law firm Venable, LLP.
A copy of today's decision is available online at: www.aclu.org/racial-justice/maryland-state-police-department-v-maryland-state-conference-naacp-branches-decision
Additional information about the ACLU Racial Justice Program is available online at: www.aclu.org/racialjustice
CONTACT: Will Matthews, (212) 549-2582 or 2666; firstname.lastname@example.org
American Civil Liberties Union, 125 Broad Street 18th Floor, New York, NY 10004-2400 United States