Baltimore, MD (March 20, 2014) – In a powerful opinion that cites the importance of court awards of fees and costs in civil rights cases brought under the Maryland Public Information Act, Baltimore County Circuit Court Judge Timothy Martin has ruled that lawyers for the Maryland State Conference of NAACP Branches (NAACP) are due fair compensation for six years of work securing disclosure of investigative records pertaining to racial profiling complaints filed against the Maryland State Police (MSP). Representing the NAACP, the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) of Maryland and Venable LLP join the group in heralding this decision, which upholds the right to public information and the ability of citizens to hold their government accountable.
“We are proud of this ruling, which is important not just to the NAACP, but to anyone seeking to defend civil rights and ensure government accountability in Maryland,” said Gerald Stansbury, President of the Maryland State Conference of NAACP Branches. “Again and again, the courts have made it very clear that law enforcement needs to be transparent when it comes to concerns about racial profiling.”
In rejecting Maryland State Police arguments that the NAACP and its attorneys should be paid nothing for their years of legal work, Judge Martin ruled:
The long and exhausting battle in the enforcement of civil rights in this country and in this state is of paramount importan[ce] to all citizens. To require the NAACP to underwrite on its own the expenses to secure performance by the MSP of providing these documents ordered by this Court six years ago and ultimately ordered by the Court of Appeals is a discomforting concept to the Court.
“This ruling brings Marylanders a big leap closer to securing information freedom and government accountability where civil rights are at stake,” said Deborah Jeon, Legal Director for the ACLU of Maryland. “In valuing the efforts of those who fight long legal battles to gain public access to information about how the government addresses civil rights complaints, Judge Martin has leveled the playing field between citizens with limited resources and those in government, which, in turn, will help bring the promises of our civil rights and freedom of information laws closer to reality.”
In January 2013, the Maryland Court of Appeals ruled that MSP had to turn over records pertaining to racial profiling complaints under the state’s public information law. Since 2007, the ACLU and NAACP have maintained that MSP has violated the state’s public information law by improperly withholding documents that would show whether it has meaningfully investigated profiling complaints. The high court ruling rejected the Attorney General’s blanket assertion that those documents could never be released, holding instead that redaction of personal information amply protects any privacy interests of those involved.
The NAACP’s purpose in pursuing the records all along has been to determine whether the MSP is truly investigating the complaints and taking seriously its responsibility to eliminate racial profiling by its troopers. However, the MSP refused to turn over the documents, saying that all records of complaints and investigations were "personnel records" exempt from disclosure under the Maryland Public Information Act (MPIA), even when all identifying information is redacted.
In 2003, the NAACP and the MSP entered into a Consent Decree in racial profiling litigation initiated in the early 1990s. The MSP agreed to make the process for motorists to file racial profiling complaints more user-friendly and to thoroughly investigate all such complaints. During the four-year period following entry of the Decree, approximately 100 official complaints alleging racial profiling were filed by minority motorists. However, the MSP found that not a single one of these complaints had merit. No MSP trooper has ever been found to have engaged in racial profiling, and no disciplinary action has ever been taken against a trooper for racial profiling.
Seth Rosenthal, an attorney who has led the Venable legal team since 2007, added: “The trial court judge got it right six years ago when he ordered the State Police to disclose its racial profiling investigation records, and he gets it right again here in finding that, in pursuing this litigation, the NAACP has, at once, advanced the cause of civil rights and reinforced the legislature’s directive to state agencies to maximize access to public records.”
Plaintiffs are represented by pro bono attorneys Seth Rosenthal, Brian Schwalb, and Joeann Walker from the law firm Venable, LLP, and Deborah Jeon from the ACLU of Maryland.
Go to the ACLU of Maryland website to learn more.