For Maryland court records, opacity when transparency is needed most

There has never been a time when the public interest in being able to search court records to determine which police officers were involved in an arrest or would serve as witnesses in a case was more clear. After the indictments of members of the Baltimore Police Department’s now defunct Gun Trace Task Force, defense attorneys were able to quickly find cases the corrupt officers had been involved in, which could help free innocent people from prison. Reporters for The Sun and other media organizations were able to rapidly get a sense of how prolific that group of officers had been in making arrests to give the public a sense of the scope of the problems the officers’ misdeeds might cause. Reporters were able to use the records to determine connections with other officers and begin to answer questions about how such corruption could flourish for so long within the department, information that intensified pressure for the department to reform its disciplinary practices and which will be chief exhibits in a public policy debate over those issues in Annapolis.

The desire to see officers’ names in the Maryland courts case search database is not a matter of idle curiosity. It is crucial to the public’s ability to provide oversight for a police department where it has been sorely lacking.

The unannounced move to remove that information on Thursday is beyond tone deaf, it is yet another example of the Maryland Judiciary’s damaging allergy to transparency and scrutiny. We don’t have formal evaluations of judges here, as many other states do. Case search records have long made it impossible to compare judges’ courtroom records. Last year, the judiciary bristled at the notion that it should be part of a discussion Gov. Larry Hogan called to talk about Baltimore crime. We have yet to hear a specific explanation for the decision by the judiciary’s standing committee on rules of practice and procedure to remove a rule requiring that the names and contact information for officers involved in a case be removed from case search, but it fits the pattern.

The fact that the change was approved nearly a year ago at a meeting that was open to the public does not make it right. The justification that it emerged from concerns by police officers that listing their full names in the database could put them at risk is unconvincing; even those who raised that issue say they did not expect or want the judiciary to go this far. And the explanation that the full information is available on antiquated computer terminals in some courthouses and on paper in others is utterly inadequate in 2018.

In this age, the public is rightly demanding that information on everything the government does, from issuing parking tickets to cleaning up sewage spills, be immediately and conveniently accessible. To take away information that has been readily available for years is simply outrageous.The judiciary needs to reverse this action immediately. If it doesn’t, Governor Hogan and the General Assembly need to move to require that the data be restored.

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