ANNAPOLIS, Md. (AP) — Maryland’s highest court has ruled that documents related to internal police investigations of officers are exempt from the state’s public information act, even when complaints are sustained.
The Court of Appeal ruled 5-2 Thursday in a case involving a public records request for Maryland State Police to turn over records involving a trooper. Teleta Dashiell filed a complaint after a Maryland State Police trooper left her a telephone message containing a racial slur. After she complained, Dashiell was told in a letter that that “appropriate disciplinary action” had been taken and was documented in the trooper’s personnel file. But when Dashiell filed a Public Information Act request to learn more, the agency told her no records could be released.
The court said finding that disclosure was required in sustained cases would affect all public employees and could chill the disciplinary process.
“It is clear that under our jurisprudence a `personnel record’ under the act pertains to discipline of an employee,” Judge Lynne A. Battaglia wrote for the court’s majority. “Because the act itself does not differentiate among the bases for internal affairs investigations and the records emanating therefrom, we will not.”
Two members dissented, noting that shedding light on internal governmental investigations is a main purpose of the law and especially important amid instances of actual or alleged police misconduct. Judge Shirley M. Watts wrote in her dissent that the majority didn’t heed the mandate of the General Assembly and precedent in favor of disclosure.
“As a result, a law enforcement agency will be permitted to conceal from public view the action that it ultimately took in response to a sustained complaint about a law enforcement officer,” Watts wrote. “This is particularly unfortunate in light of the circumstance that, today, honoring the public’s right to know how law enforcement agencies respond to misconduct — especially misconduct that arises out of contact with the public — is vital to maintaining the public’s trust in law enforcement.”
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