The national debate over law enforcement and minority relations seeped into a ruling from the Maryland Court of Appeals in a case that attempted to make the state police reveal whether a trooper had been disciplined for misconduct.
The Court of Appeals ruled Thursday that internal records related to a police officer's misconduct are exempt from the Maryland Public Information Act. In a 5-2 ruling, the court said the law exempts personnel information from disclosure, even if the allegations were "sustained," or found to be true.
The court said that a decision to require disclosure of a sustained finding would affect all public employees, not only police officers.
The ruling, however, also split along racial lines. The two African-American judges on the high court, Shirley M. Watts and Clayton Greene Jr., disagreed. Watts' dissenting opinion said the decision enables police agencies to shield misconduct and discipline from the public.
"This is particularly unfortunate in light of the circumstance that, today, honoring the public's right to know how law enforcement agencies respond to misconduct — especially misconduct that arises out of contact with the public — is vital to maintaining the public's trust in law enforcement," Watts wrote. "In other words, to paraphrase Justice Louis D. Brandeis, transparency is the best remedy."
The issue about transparency has triggered debates across the country on whether laws give police officers too much protection. The Maryland State Police declined to comment Friday.
The case stemmed from a message Sgt. John Maiello left on an answering machine for Teleta Dashiell of the Eastern Shore in 2009. The machine recorded the sergeant apparently describing Dashiell, who is African-American, with a racial slur after he thought he ended the call, she said.
Dashiell lodged a complaint and several months later received a letter from the department stating that her claim was sustained and that appropriate action had been taken. But the department refused to provide further information about its investigation or what disciplinary action, if any, was taken. The American Civil Liberties Union of Maryland filed the lawsuit on Dashiell's behalf.
The ruling was disappointing, said Deborah Jeon, ACLU legal director. She vowed to fight to change the law.
"We think thatthis result cannot be what the legislature intended in drafting Maryland's Public Information Act, and can think of no category of information that is more important for the public to have accessto, and no issue on which transparency ingovernment is more important," Jeon said. "But if that isindeed what the law now means, then the law needs to change, and we will do everything in our power to make sure that happens in the next legislativesession."