By BERNIE BECKER, Capital News Service
ANNAPOLIS (September 27, 2006) - The American Civil Liberties Union sued the Maryland State Police on Wednesday, claiming the agency has "improperly withheld records" about its compliance with "driving while black" litigation.
The suit, filed in Baltimore County Circuit Court on behalf of the Maryland NAACP, says police violated the Maryland Public Information Act by denying the civil rights organization some documents and trying to charge excessive fees for others.
Wednesday's suit, which asks that the NAACP be allowed to inspect the denied records and get back money it already paid the police, is the just the latest act in almost 15 years of litigation over racial profiling on Maryland roads. As a result of those previous suits, the state police had agreed to provide information on racial profiling complaints.
Going to court "was absolutely a last resort," said Reggie Shuford, a senior staff attorney for the ACLU.
"We've gone back and forth with the state police over the course of a number of months trying to get access to these documents and at a reasonable cost," Shuford said.
But state police spokesman Greg Shipley said in a written statement that police have "worked diligently for years . . . to provide requested information" on racial profiling and had already "supplied almost 3,000 pages of documents" in response to a February request.
The National Association for the Advancement of Colored People in February requested documents concerning state police compliance with a 1998 consent decree aimed at ending racially motivated traffic stops.
Police denied part of the request, refusing to release redacted information about state troopers involved in racial profiling complaints or any disciplinary actions levied against them. The state claimed those records were protected because they were confidential personnel information, Shuford said.
The 1998 consent decree mandated the state police provide the NAACP with quarterly reports on racial profiling complaints, which Shipley said was already done "to the extent allowed by the law."
State police told the NAACP it would cost more than $55,000 to produce the approved portion of the February request, including 75 cents per copied page. Other state agencies charge between 15 cents and 25 cents per page, according to Wednesday's suit.
The NAACP's request to bring in an outside company to copy documents at a lower rate was denied. It eventually paid almost $10,000—at more than $100 per hour—to the state police in collection fees to inspect the records without copying them.
The Maryland Public Information Act allows access to "any public record at any reasonable time" and says applicants should be charged no more than the "actual costs incurred by a government unit."
Shuford said that, while the "letter and spirit" of the act are clear, "someone looking to find a loophole might very well find it."
This is at least the third time the ACLU has sued the state police over racial profiling.
The ACLU of Maryland filed suit on behalf of Robert Wilkins in 1993 after he and his family were stopped in Western Maryland. That led to a 1995 consent decree in which the state agreed to end racial profiling and to compile data on traffic stops and searches.
"It was certainly my hope and expectation that I would still not be fighting the Maryland State Police" so many years "after being illegally stopped by them," Wilkins said Wednesday. Wilkins, an attorney, now works for one of the firms suing the state police.
The national ACLU sued on behalf of the Maryland NAACP in 1998, a year after a federal court ruled the state police had violated the Wilkins pact and continued racial profiling. That suit led to the current consent decree.
Jim Lee of the Maryland Foundation for Open Government, said he understood why state police were "wary . . . and didn't think they'd be seen in a positive light" over racial profiling.
"But that's no reason" to refuse access to the documents, Lee added.