ANNAPOLIS – Lawyers from the Maryland Attorney General’s office and the NAACP clashed Tuesday over access to Maryland State Police records related to racial profiling before a rare en banc hearing of the Maryland Court of Special Appeals.
The court usually hears cases in panels of three, but the full court heard Tuesday’s arguments about whether or not internal State Police investigations into racial profiling complaints are exempt under the Maryland Public Information Act.
Since 2003, there have been roughly 100 complaints of racial profiling made by Maryland motorists against the state police. According to protocol, the state police conducts an internal investigation into these complaints. But none of the investigations have determined the officers involved used racial profiling.
The National Association for the Advancement of Colored People found this statistic alarming and put in a request for the investigation records under the state’s public records law. The state denied that request on the grounds that the documents were private personnel records.
In June 2008, lawyers for the NAACP successfully argued they needed access to the records to prove the state police was not fully investigating instances of racial profiling. The Baltimore County Circuit Court ruled that a panel of NAACP lawyers could review the records and copy relevant documents, making redactions where necessary in the interest of privacy.
Tuesday’s hearing was the result of an appeal by the Attorney General’s office to overturn the lower court’s ruling. Assistant Attorney General David R. Moore argued the records were explicitly protected under the public records law because they are personnel records.
“The circuit court, which had the benefit of looking [at the records], said these are personnel records,” Moore said. “Under the statute, that’s supposed to be the end of the analysis.”
Seth A. Rosenthal, a lawyer with Venable LLP representing the NAACP, said that Moore’s concerns about privacy were directly addressed by the redactions ordered by the circuit court. He also argued that the public’s right to know in this case outweighed the need to keep personnel records private.
“Based on the state’s position, the state police could simply throw those investigations in the trash can and no one would know, or have a right to know,” Rosenthal said.
The hearing was the latest in a legal battle over racial profiling between the NAACP and the Maryland State Police that has spanned over a decade. The fight began with Wilkins v. Maryland State Police in 1993, a case in which Robert L. Wilkins, a black attorney, was pulled over by state police officers who were following the agency’s guidelines that called for the use of racial profiling.
In 1995, Maryland settled the case out of court and agreed not to use racial profiles and to keep comprehensive records of all traffic stops, in addition to paying damages to Wilkins. But in a 1997 class-action suit, a federal court found the Maryland State Police had continued to use racial profiling. Ultimately, the state agreed to make fundamental reforms in police policy and resolve all claims with the 18 plaintiffs.
One of the court-ordered reforms required the police to make it easier for motorists to file complaints of racial profiling. The 100 or so complaints, and the ensuing investigations, stem from this reform.
But NAACP lawyers claim the state police continue to use racial profiling to this day. According to Wilkins, the plaintiff in the 1993 case and a lawyer with Venable LLP representing the NAACP, recent data show that blacks in Maryland are pulled over at a disproportionate rate compared to whites.
“They are targeting and searching African-Americans three to four times as much on I-95 today — after years and years of litigation, after they supposedly changed training, after they supposedly changed policy,” Wilkins said.