ACLU Appeals Ruling In State Police Racial Slur Case
May 24, 2012
PRINCESS ANNE, MD - Concerned that Maryland State Police (MSP) have been granted carte blanche to keep secrets about how the agency addresses citizen complaints of police misconduct, the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) of Maryland is asking a Maryland appeals court to overturn a lower court ruling permitting the department to shield all records of complaint investigations from public scrutiny. The challenge comes in the case of a Somerset County woman, Teleta S. Dashiell, who is seeking information related to MSP's handling of her complaint about a voicemail message she received from a state trooper in which he twice uses a racial slur. The ACLU appeal argues 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.
"Teleta Dashiell hoped that her pursuit of a citizen complaint would help to restore her faith in law enforcement, by allowing MSP officials to demonstrate that such complaints are taken seriously, and that the Department does not tolerate racism," said ACLU of Maryland Legal Director Deborah Jeon. "Instead, MSP responded by assuring Ms. Dashiell it handled the complaint ‘appropriately', but refusing to tell her anything about what that means. ‘Trust us' is just not an adequate response for someone who is complaining of police misconduct and has good reason not to trust the police."
Noting the critical public importance of the issues raised by the appeal, the ACLU's argument begins:
At issue in this case is the age-old question, "Quis custodiet ipsos custodes?" - who shall guard the guardians? The specific issue before the court is the public's right to information about how our police departments police themselves when dealing with citizen complaints of discriminatory practices. This case 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.
On November 5, 2009, Sergeant John Maiello, an MSP trooper, contacted Ms. 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. Ms. 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 Ms. Dashiell's complaint was handled, the ACLU filed a Maryland Public Information Act (MPIA) request on behalf of Ms. Dashiell to obtain MSP records arising from her complaint. MSP refused to release a single document, including Ms. Dashiell's own statement, contending that all the documents are personnel records that are strictly confidential. When Ms. 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. To this day, Ms. Dashiell does not know which of the records she requested exist, because MSP has refused to provide basic information about which documents it was withholding.
The trial court ruling stands in stark contrast to the February 2010 en banc decision by the Maryland Court of Special Appeals in a public information case brought against the MSP by the ACLU and the Maryland State Conference of NAACP Branches, in which the groups sought documents related to racial profiling complaints. In that case, the MSP refused to produce the investigatory records, claiming - just as it does in Dashiell's case - that all records of citizen complaint investigations are confidential. The Court of Special Appeals rejected MSP's arguments, and ordered disclosure of the records, reasoning:
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 events 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. A State Trooper does not have a reasonable expectation of privacy as to such records.
"The Court of Special Appeals has made clear that race discrimination complaints against police officers and officials involving on-the-job conduct are just the kind of records the public has a right to see," said ACLU of Maryland attorney Sonia Kumar. "The public has a strong interest in ensuring that Maryland's preeminent law enforcement agency is transparent about how it handles proven allegations of misconduct."
Significantly, the Howard University School of Law's Civil Rights Clinic has filed an amicus brief in support of Ms. Dashiell's right to know how her substantiated complaint was resolved. That brief underscores the importance of public oversight and transparency as a means of ensuring that valid victim complaints against law enforcement officials are properly investigated and corrective measures implemented.
Teleta Dashiell is represented by pro bono attorneys Lisa Hall Johnson, Shavon J. Smith, and Paul R. Taskier of Dickstein Shapiro LLP, as well as by ACLU of Maryland Legal Director Deborah Jeon, and Staff Attorney Sonia Kumar.