The Maryland Court of Appeals ruled recently that state police personnel files are not completely off-limits under the Maryland Public Information Act, a finding that could broaden access to a whole range of information, experts say.
The decision came after a long battle between the Maryland State Police and the local branch of the NAACP, which wanted to see records of internal affairs files on racial profiling complaints. Some lawyers involved in the case say the ruling will likely have wide implications for any of the long list of "mandatory exemptions" contained in the public information law.
Before the ruling, "if the government placed a big raft of records in a file labeled 'personnel,' it could withhold the whole file, whatever it might contain," said Deborah Jeon, the legal director of the Maryland ACLU. "Officials didn't have to sift through the individual records and see whether redaction might offer privacy protection sufficient to allow many of the records to be disclosed."
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In the NAACP case, the Maryland State Police said it could legally withhold the files because they were personnel records and it was under no obligation to try to redact them.
A Baltimore County judge decided that if the names of individual troopers were redacted, the records could not possibly be personnel records, so they should be released. The Court of Appeals agreed.
The state police and the attorney general's office, which handles appeals cases and publishes a guide to Maryland's public information law, said they were still reviewing the decision.
Jeon, who has been involved in racial profiling cases for two decades, said the ruling suggests that other exemptions — including adoption, welfare and even library records — could also be challenged if privacy and disclosure can be balanced.
The NAACP wanted to see the state police files to check whether the agency was thoroughly investigating racial profiling complaints, and the decision in its case could give journalists and the public a new way to look into the inner workings of government.
But Seth Rosenthal, an attorney with Venable who worked on the case, said the attorney general's office might not give in automatically. "They could say, 'OK, we're done,'" he said. "Or they could say, 'Hey listen, that NAACP case only relates to that kind of record at issue there.'"