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Maryland Department of State Police v. Maryland State Conference of Naacp Branches

January 24, 2013

MARYLAND DEPARTMENT OF STATE POLICE
v.
MARYLAND STATE CONFERENCE OF NAACP BRANCHES



The opinion of the court was delivered by: Eldridge, J.

Bell, C. J. Harrell Battaglia Greene *fn1 Murphy Barbera Eldridge, John C. (Retired, Specially Assigned) JJ.

Opinion by Eldridge, J.

The Maryland Public Information Act provides that "[a]ll persons are entitled to have access to information about the affairs of government and the official acts of public officials and employees." Maryland Code (1984, 2009 Repl. Vol., 2012 Supp.), § 10-612(a) of the State Government Article. While the Public Information Act makes access to government information generally available to the public, it also shields some government information from disclosure. The present case involves the exemption from disclosure in § 10-616(i) of the Public Information Act, which requires that custodians of records "shall deny inspection of a personnel record of an individual."

I.

The relevant events in this case commenced when the Maryland State Conference of NAACP Branches (hereafter "NAACP"), pursuant to the Public Information Act, requested certain records from the Maryland State Police Department (hereafter the "State Police"). The NAACP claimed that the requested records would allow it to verify whether the State Police had been complying with its obligations under a federal court consent order designed to ensure that State Police officers did not rely on racial attributes when deciding whether to conduct a traffic stop and search.*fn2 The State Police produced many of the documents requested by the NAACP but declined to produce a few specified categories of requested records.*fn3

At issue in this case is the refusal of the State Police to provide the documents requested in item number 6 of the NAACP's request. In item number 6, the NAACP asked to inspect and copy:

"6. All documents obtained or created in connection with any complaint of racial profiling, including but not limited to any complaint filed with or investigated by the MSP's [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 replied that the records requested in item 6 "constitute portions of personnel records" and that, "pursuant to Section 10-616(i)," the State Police "den[ied] an inspection of" those records. Section 10-616(i) states:

"(i) Personnel records. - (1) Subject to paragraph (2) of this subsection, a custodian shall deny inspection of a personnel record of an individual, including an application, performance rating, or scholastic achievement information.

(2) A custodian shall permit inspection by:

(i) the person in interest; or

(ii) an elected or appointed official who supervises the work of the individual."

Although the State Police refused to disclose further records pursuant to NAACP's request number 6, pursuant to the earlier federal consent decree, the NAACP did receive regular reports from the State Police detailing the number and status of all racial profiling complaints, including the complaint's ultimate disposition. The reports, however, did not contain information concerning the State Police's own internal investigations of these complaints.

On May 2, 2007, the NAACP wrote a letter to the State Police stating that the Maryland Public Information Act should "be construed in favor of permitting inspection of a public record," and clarifying that the NAACP was not seeking "the private, confidential personal information of particular [State Police] troopers," but rather was focusing on information related to how the State Police "at the institutional and management levels, ha[ve] responded to racial profiling complaints." In this respect, the NAACP said that it would be willing to accept redacted documents relating to request number 6, if each trooper was given "a unique number or code" so that the NAACP could "ascertain whether a particular trooper is referenced in more than one complaint . . . without divulging that particular trooper's identity." The State Police, in a letter five days later, rejected the NAACP's request once again and reiterated its position that the records were exempt from disclosure under § 10-616(i) of the Public Information Act.

Subsequently, the NAACP commenced the present action by filing in the Circuit Court for Baltimore County a complaint alleging that the State Police had violated the Maryland Public Information Act by refusing to allow the NAACP to inspect and copy the requested records. The NAACP sought, inter alia, a declaratory judgment that the State Police violated the Public Information Act and an order requiring the State Police to allow inspection and copying of the records. In its complaint, the NAACP stated that its right to access the "requested information is especially significant where, as here, the [State Police's] obligation to follow the law- that is, its obligation to act in a raceneutral manner - is compelled not only by the state and federal Constitutions, but by a still-extant, well-known federal court Consent Decree."

Both parties filed motions for summary judgment which were denied. Subsequently, the Circuit Judge heard oral arguments from both parties and thereafter ordered the State Police to submit the disputed records to the Judge for his in camera review. After reviewing many of the disputed documents in camera, the Circuit Judge determined that "these are the kinds of files that are personnel in nature and represent a thrust against an individual trooper." He decided, however, that if information was redacted from the records so that "you don't know who the trooper was, it really can't be personnel in nature, and it can't be an invasion of a trooper's privacy." The Judge continued:

"I did not feel it appropriate . . . to just claim them all exempt and say NAACP, you're not getting any of it. I did not feel it fair to say you're getting all of them and risk privacy rights of the troopers being invaded and all kinds of other problems.

"I believe the fair approach is to find that middle ground which is what I'm going to do. * * * I honestly feel that when the NAACP sees these documents, they will not want a lion's share of them for various reasons."

The Circuit Court issued a written interlocutory order stating that the "[r]ecords responsive to Request No. 6 of Plaintiff's Maryland Public Information Act ('MPIA') request . . . constitute personnel records under the MPIA," but that they should "be disclosed provided that the names and any identification number of individual Maryland State Police . . . troopers and the names and identifying information of any complainants are redacted from such records." The court ordered that the State Police "shall provide Plaintiff with such records," with the above-described redactions. The Circuit Court stated at one point that, "[i]f you don't ...


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