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Removing police names from Maryland database called 'honest mistake'; judiciary to reconsider change Tuesday

Maryland's highest court reinstates police officers names to courts database.

An “honest mistake” caused the names of police officers to vanish from Maryland’s public online database of court cases, a retired judge behind the change said Monday.

The officers’ names disappeared from the Maryland Case Search online database last week without warning, sparking an outcry from attorneys, elected officials, journalists and advocates of transparency in government. Suddenly, the public could no longer see who had made an arrest.

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Alan Wilner, the retired Maryland Court of Appeals judge who chairs the committee responsible for the changes, said the removal was an unintended consequence of revisions last year to the database.

“We missed the boat,” he said. “We should have been more careful. There was no evil intent. There was no conspiracy.”

Maryland’s highest court called an emergency public meeting for Tuesday in Annapolis to reconsider the changes.

The judiciary defended the changes last week, but Wilner said it had become clear the judges made a mistake.

“It was an honest mistake, not for an improper motive, but a mistake that never should have occurred, and for which I humbly apologize,” he wrote Monday to the Court of Appeals.

The Case Search database contains details of court cases including information about defendants, the charges they face, the names of prosecutors and defense attorneys, and police officers involved in their arrests. It’s an essential tool for members of the public, lawyers and journalists.

Some Baltimore defense attorneys gathered Monday to criticize the removal. The database proved particularly useful during the corruption scandal of Baltimore’s Gun Trace Task Force, in which eight officers were convicted of federal racketeering charges for robbing citizens and cheating on their overtime. Defense attorneys used the database to tie the corrupt officers to other cases involving their clients.

“It was impossible to create a list of cases that need to be examined without Case Search with the police officers’ names in it,” defense attorney Natalie Finegar said. “It’s imperative that the courts change this. … Somebody’s got to police the police, and in order to do that, you need data.”

The movement to remove officers’ names from the database originated years ago. Anne Arundel County police had long lobbied for revisions to the way officers’ names appeared online. They said criminals could use full names from Case Search to locate officers’ homes. Though that hasn’t happened, police said first names — and first names only — should be hidden as a precaution.

A courts committee on rules and procedures decided last year to change the way names appeared. Wilner, the chairman, said members intended officers’ first initials, last names, badge numbers and departments to show in database searches. It was one among many changes considered for the database.

Another would have allowed criminal cases to be expunged after a number of years. That proposal failed.

But the committee erred in its procedures for adopting some changes and rejecting others — a mistake they discovered only recently, when Case Search programmers revised the database. The officers’ names had vanished.

“It was a surprise. It kind of came out of the blue,” Wilner said. “We did this a year ago. What’s the problem now?”

The change was immediately unpopular. Anne Arundel County police said it went too far. Maryland State Police and Baltimore police officials didn’t support it, either.

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Baltimore Police spokesman T.J. Smith called Case Search an important part of transparency.

A spokesman for Gov. Larry Hogan said, “Public information should be public. End of story.”

Officials in the Maryland Public Defender’s Office blasted the change, 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.

Defense attorney Ivan Bates, another candidate, called for police names to be restored at a news conference Monday. High rates of violent crime in the city and recent police corruption cases make such information more important, Bates said.

“Baltimore is in a state of crisis,” he said. “We’re at a time and point where we need to be as transparent as possible.”

Court officials said the public will have a chance to speak about the changes at the meeting Tuesday. The court could bring back the officers’ names, Wilner said. But any additional changes will require time and work by programmers in the Judicial Information Systems division.

“They could — if they wanted to — restore it effective tomorrow,” the retired judge said. “That doesn’t mean JIS is going to be able to re-engineer the thing” immediately.

The meeting is scheduled for 2 p.m. at The Robert C. Murphy Courts of Appeal Building in Annapolis.

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