CALVERT COUNTY, Md. (April 24, 2023)—In a lawsuit filed by the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) of Maryland under the Maryland Public Information Act (MPIA), the Baltimore City Circuit Court ruled this week that Calvert County Sheriff Mike Evans acted unlawfully by refusing to release public records about police search practices unless the ACLU paid a hefty fee. The ACLU sought the important public information after receiving disturbing accounts from Calvert County residents about invasive police searches targeting Black people. But Sheriff Evans blocked disclosure of these records, demanding more than $12,000 in fees. The Court ruled that the Sheriff's actions were wrong as a matter of law because he failed to consider how access to these records would serve the public interest.
"This decision is a win for everyone in Calvert County seeking police accountability, especially those harmed by wrongful invasive searches," said Dara Johnson, Legal Advocacy Coordinator for the ACLU of Maryland. "The court's ruling further confirms the public's clear interest in protecting against police misconduct, and we are hopeful that these records will help us continue to do so."
While Calvert County officials acknowledged that the information sought by the ACLU is publicly accessible under the law, they still tried to shield the information from disclosure by demanding a huge price tag, and then denying the ACLU's request for a waiver of the fee, asserting without explanation that disclosure would not be in the public interest.
Sheriff Evans's demand for a burdensome fee in response to a public records request is part of a troubling new statewide pattern. Fee waivers, once routinely granted to public interest organizations like the ACLU, are dwindling. After a 2021 change in Maryland law that made certain police misconduct files part of the public record, police departments faced an influx of requests for information on officers' disciplinary histories. Reluctant to produce the records but without legal justification not to, government agencies appear to be increasingly using to fees as an obstacle to public disclosure of these records.
During the court hearing on April 14, Circuit Court Judge Martin Schreiber rejected Calvert County's claim out of hand, repeatedly emphasizing that information about police practices is of extreme public interest, and that this was particularly true during the period the records were requested.
"The Sheriff tried to argue that the public has no interest in understanding how - and how often - police officers deploy some of their most invasive tactics," said Samantha Miller of Zuckerman Spaeder LLP who, along with her colleague Adam Abelson, represented the ACLU. "The judge was not persuaded."
In July 2021 - prompted by complaints made to the ACLU about abusive and unconstitutional conduct by the Calvert County Sheriff's Office - the organization requested documents related to strip searches and body cavity searches conducted by sheriff's personnel since 2017. Among the search records sought were any video and/or audio recordings, including dashboard camera footage and/or body camera footage, as well as field observation reports, criminal investigation/case reports, arrest reports and charging documents.
As is the ACLU's standard practice in its work to advance civil rights, the organization's request sought a waiver of charges under the MPIA provision governing requests made in the public interest. In response, the Sheriff's Office conceded that it does have documents responsive to the ACLU request. But the Sheriff's Office rejected the request for waiver of fees despite the clear importance of this information to the public, refusing to produce the public records unless the ACLU pays the full amount of fees it seeks to charge-starting at $12,000, at minimum.
The team involved in filing this legal action includes Adam Abelson, Samantha Miller, and D'Ann Vermilye of Zuckerman Spaeder LLP, and Deborah Jeon, Dara Johnson, and Gina Elleby of the ACLU of Maryland.
Learn more about this case: www.aclu-md.org/en/cases/aclu-v-calvert-county