Maryland High Court Agrees to Hear Police Accountability Case

December 11, 2014

 

 

 

CONTACT: Meredith Curtis, ACLU of Maryland, 410-889-8555; media@aclu-md.org

 

PRINCESS ANNE - Today, the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) of Maryland applauded the Court of Appeals' decision to hear the case of its client, Teleta Dashiell, a Somerset County woman who filed a citizen complaint against a Maryland State Police (MSP) trooper who was recorded denigrating her with a racial slur.  Nearly five years ago, Dashiell requested records from the MSP about how it handled her complaint.  But MSP has taken the extreme position that all records pertaining to her complaint must be kept secret, including her own statement to police, claiming that such records are "personnel" records or else shielded from public view by the Law Enforcement Officers' Bill of Rights.  MSP has refused to even name the records it is withholding from Dashiell, arguing that the law does not recognize the right of a complainant like Dashiell to information about her own police misconduct complaint. 

 

"This case is about whether the public ever gets to see records about how police ‘police' themselves, and the public's interest in ensuring that victims of police misconduct get to find out what police did with their complaints," said ACLU of Maryland attorney Sonia Kumar.  "These questions are especially important in light of current events and debate about ensuring police accountability and restoring community trust."

 

Background: 

 

On November 5, 2009, Sergeant John Maiello, an MSP trooper, contacted Teleta Dashiell because he believed she might be a witness in a case he was investigating.  After leaving her his contact information, Maiello - mistakenly believing he had hung up the phone - continued in a conversation with someone else, referencing Ms. Dashiell using a racial slur.  Dashiell filed a complaint with the MSP, cooperated with the investigation, and several months later received a letter stating that her claim was sustained and appropriate action had been taken.  However, the state police did not provide any further information about its investigation or the action taken. 

 

In March 2010, seeking additional information about how Dashiell's complaint was handled, the ACLU filed a Maryland Public Information Act (MPIA) request on behalf of Dashiell to obtain MSP records arising from her complaint.  MSP refused to release a single document, including Dashiell's own statement, contending that all the documents are personnel records that are strictly confidential, and that the Law Enforcement Officers' Bill of Rights (LEOBR) bars their disclosure.  When Dashiell went to court seeking further review, the Circuit Court of Baltimore County, without examining the documents or even requiring MSP to produce an index of what documents exist, granted summary judgment to MSP.

 

In May 2012, the ACLU asked the appeals court to overturn a lower court ruling permitting the MSP to shield all records of complaint investigations from public scrutiny. The ACLU appeal argued that MSP's blanket refusal to disclose any information about its investigation of Dashiell's complaint, or about any corrective actions taken in response, is illegal and undermines trust with communities troopers are sworn to serve:

 

In October of this year, the Court of Special Appeals ruled for Dashiell, holding that the state police could not make blanket claims that every document pertaining to her complaint of police misconduct must be kept secret. The intermediate appellate court sent the case back to the trial court for examination of what documents exist in the file, and the specific grounds on which each document is being withheld by the MSP.  

 

Apparently unwilling to provide even the trial judge with more information about its investigation of Dashiell's complaint, MSP appealed the ruling further, to Maryland's top court. Recognizing the timeliness and importance of the issues raised by Dashiell's case, the ACLU joined the request for a definitive ruling by Maryland's high court, but asked that Court to go further, and to reject the MSP's claim that Dashiell has no legally significant interest in documents pertaining to her complaint.  

 

At issue in this case is the age-old question, "Quis custodiet ipsos custodes?" - who shall guard the guardians?  The specific issue before the courts is the public's right to information about how our police departments "police" themselves when dealing with citizen complaints of misconduct.  This case has special resonance in light of current events in Maryland and across the country that have brought issues of police accountability to the forefront of public consciousness.  It also falls against the backdrop of twenty years of litigation addressing longstanding and persistent violations of civil rights by the MSP, including racial profiling of African-American motorists and spying on political activists, as well as the agency's efforts to shield itself from public scrutiny by seeking criminal prosecution of individuals recording MSP officers performing their on-the-job duties.  The case also follows years of MPIA litigation seeking information from the MSP to determine whether the agency is taking adequate steps to make good on its commitments to remedy its failures, after it was revealed that out of 100 citizen complaints alleging racial profiling, not a single complaint has been sustained.

 

Teleta Dashiell is represented by pro bono attorney Jeff Johnson, Woody Peterson, and Mary Kim, of Dickstein Shapiro LLP, as well as by ACLU of Maryland Legal Director Deborah Jeon, and Staff Attorney Sonia Kumar.

 

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