Racial Profiling Complaints Are Not Exempt From Public Disclosure

Maryland’s statutes concerning public documents are similar to those in many states, and contain an exemption allowing the non-disclosure of documents that are “personnel records.” A recent decision from the Maryland Court of Appeals addressed whether racial profiling records fit within the “personnel records” exception.

The case had its origins in a 2003 consent decree entered into by the NAACP and the Maryland State Police. In 2007, the NAACP became suspicious that the State was not fulfilling the obligations undertaken when it signed the consent decree. The NAACP filed a public records request asking the State to produce “any complaint of racial profiling, including but not limited to any complaint filed with or investigated by the Maryland State Police’s Department of Internal Affairs, including all complaints filed, all documents collected or created during the investigation of each complaint, and all documents reflecting the conclusion of each investigation.”

The Court found that documents relating to racial profiling complaints were not “personnel records” that were exempt from disclosure under the law. As the Court analyzed it, “racial profiling complaints against Maryland State Troopers do not involve private matters concerning intimate details of the trooper’s private life; instead, such complaints involve offenses occurring while the trooper is on duty and engaged in public service. As such, the files at issue concern public actions by agents of the State concerning affairs of government, which are exactly the types of material the Act was designed to allow the public to see.”

As to the meaning of “personnel records,” the Court observed that “the common sense meaning of the term ‘personnel records of an individual’ would not include investigative files with the Police Department concerning racial profiling, especially in light of the fact that such files are covered by another section of the public records law. Instead, the term should be given a more narrow scope. Personnel records include employment history, qualifications, job classifications, status within the civil service system, work schedule, and overtime history.”

The State argued that internal affairs investigation records were exempt from disclosure because those records “unquestionably concern whether an employee should be disciplined for misconduct.” The Court rejected the idea, finding that “when the State’s representative was deposed in this case, he admitted that unlike disciplinary records, the racial profiling complaint records are not stored in the trooper’s personnel file, and no racial profiling complaint has ever resulted in disciplinary action because no complaint thus far has been sustained. The records at issue clearly do not directly pertain to discipline of an existing or former employee.”

Maryland Dept. of State Police v. Maryland State Conference of NAACP Branches, 2010 WL 348183 (Md. App. 2010).

This article appears in the April 2010 issue