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Maryland's highest court reinstates police officers' names to database of cases

Maryland’s highest court voted unanimously Tuesday to restore the names of police officers to the public’s online database of court cases, overturning changes that erased the names last week and ignited swift backlash.

Seven judges on the Court of Appeals called the emergency meeting in Annapolis to correct what they called an “honest mistake.” The officers’ names vanished without warning, drawing widespread criticism from attorneys, elected officials, journalists and advocates for transparency in government.

“Sometimes small mistakes can have big consequences and that’s certainly what happened here,” Chief Judge Mary Ellen Barbera said.

The court administrators arrived Tuesday with their fix in mind. They had printed copies of an amendment to restore the officers’ names. The judges voted without discussion.

Officers’ full names are scheduled to return to the database by the weekend.

“This deletion was an error, an honest mistake,” Barbera said. “The buck stops here. We are accountable.”

The Maryland Judiciary Case Search database includes information about defendants, the charges they face, the names of prosecutors and defense attorneys, and law enforcement officers who were involved in the arrest. It’s considered an integral tool for members of the public, lawyers and journalists.

Case Search proved valuable for defense attorneys in the wake of the federal racketeering indictments and recent convictions of eight members of the Baltimore Police Department’s Gun Trace Task Force. It allowed them and others to track other cases involving the officers and to search for links with other officers and cases.

About 10 people — including attorneys, a college student, journalists and activists — spoke during Tuesday’s meeting. All urged the judges to restore the names to the database. None spoke in favor of the change that removed them.

“I’m very happy. I think it clearly shows what happens when you collaborate,” said Baltimore defense attorney Ivan Bates, who is a candidate for Baltimore state’s attorney. He thanked the courts for “moving so quickly.”

Maryland court administrators initially defended the change, but backed off Monday. Alan Wilner, a retired Court of Appeals judge who chairs the committee responsible for the changes, said the group never intended to hide the full names of officers in the database. He said the committee had intended only to replace officers’ first names with an initial, but the group erred in its procedures for adopting the change, which they discovered only recently.

The Court of Appeals judges, without discussion, voted to return to the practice of listing officers’ full names.

Amy Petkovsek, an attorney with Maryland Legal Aid, told the judges that the nonprofit relies on police officers’ names from Case Search to assist people having their records expunged. The expungement process requires a defendant to waive the right to sue the police. An officers’ name is required for the paperwork. Petkovsek said expungement efforts have ground to a halt across the state.

“To continue this rule change in place would be a tremendous disservice,” she told the judges.

Baltimore attorney Cary Hansel told the judges an omission of police names would undermine efforts to identify police misconduct.

“It’s crucial for investigating our cases, and it’s crucial to have the full names to do that,” he said.

Anne Arundel police had previously lobbied for revisions to the way officers’ names appeared online. They said criminals could use full names from Case Search to locate an officer’s home. Though that hasn’t happened, police said first names should be hidden from the database as a precaution.

No police officers spoke at the meeting.

When it considered the change last year, the judges acknowledged a need for balance — protecting police, while ensuring an open justice system.

“We are unaware of any complaint that an officer was harmed,” Tim Tunison, news director of WBAL-TV, told the judges. He called the database an “invaluable tool” for journalists.

Tiana Boardman, a senior at the University of Maryland, told the judges that she relied on officers’ names from Case Search for research projects. Officials in the Maryland Public Defender’s Office also criticized the removal of the officers’ names, as did advocates from Common Cause of Maryland and the Maryland-Delaware-DC Press Association.

Over the weekend, some attorneys began taking matters into their own hands. Baltimore state's attorney candidate Thiru Vignarajah posted a database of police officers' names online Saturday.

Other states have tried to make officers harder to identify in public records. The Virginia Senate voted two years ago to conceal the names of all police officers, exempting them from public information laws. The vote came in response to work by The Virginian-Pilot newspaper, which was investigating cases of officers who got in trouble but were able to find new jobs in law enforcement. A House committee later quashed the bill.

Baltimore police in 2009 stopped releasing the names of officers involved in shootings, saying those officers faced possible threats. Under pressure, they revised the policy and now usually share the names within 48 hours of a shooting. In Baltimore County, officers have a union agreement that prohibits the public release of their first names when they are involved in shootings.

On Tuesday, Barbera thanked those in attendance for raising awareness about the mistake. Some stood and applauded her.

She smiled. “Well, that’s a first.”

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