Maryland Court System Arbitrarily Decides Public Should No Longer Have Access To Police Officers' Names

from the reverse-regulatory-capture dept

Supposedly completely of its own volition, Maryland's court system has decided to extend extra rights to law enforcement officers. Going to bat for opacity, the Maryland Judiciary has made it harder for the public to find out what officers are doing (or how often they're being sued). This comes against a backdrop where more sunlight would seem essential, what with several Baltimore police officers facing corruption charges in a wide-ranging investigation that has already netted a handful of convictions and guilty pleas.

Citing a favorite cop excuse, the state's courts have decided the public should be less informed.

Maryland’s Judiciary on Friday defended a decision to remove the names of police officers and other law enforcement authorities from the state’s searchable public online court database, saying the change was made in response to “safety concerns raised by law enforcement.”

The change took effect Thursday, following a decision by a judicial rules committee last June. Officers’ names no longer appear on cases they were involved with, and searches using an officer’s name cannot be performed.

The Judiciary claims this "balances" public access to court information with its "obligation" to protect officers from "potential misuse." It did not cite any actual misuse in defense of its position. Nor did it cite any support from law enforcement agencies or "safety concerns" raised by them. While the Anne Arundel County police admitted to lobbying for a change, all the department had asked for was the removal of first names, not removal of officers' names entirely.

Multiple law enforcement agencies contacted by The Baltimore Sun expressed their concern with the Judiciary's decision.

[T]he Maryland State Police said they had not lobbied for such a change, and the [Baltimore] Police Department said they did not agree with it.

A spokesman for Gov. Larry Hogan said: “Public information should be public. End of story.”

[...]

Baltimore police said they didn’t lobby for a change and “really don’t see why they got rid of what was already publicly available.”

“We use it too,” chief spokesman T.J. Smith said of the data.

Even more bizarrely, the Judiciary claims this removal only affects "remote access." Supposedly the names of officers can still be accessed by using local court kiosks. This makes no sense. Why would cops be "safer" if their names can only be accessed inside a local court? Wouldn't that make these (apparently imaginary) threats to officer safety much more proximate to the officers affected?

Beyond that, there's the fact that kiosk access is limited. Or, in the case of the Baltimore Circuit Court, kiosks are nonexistent. According to the Sun, the Baltimore court runs searches through an "archaic" computer system (not a kiosk) that does not provide the same search options as its online counterpart.

Local public defenders were unaware officer information was being removed, which seems to be a key oversight in the process. Public defenders are very much a part of the judicial process, yet they were never informed information they need on a daily basis would no longer be available. Already overworked, public defenders will now be forced to visit courts to access officer information and hope that court has kiosks that actually provide the search functions they need.

The Judiciary claims all of this was done in the open and with the consultation of stakeholders. This can't possibly be true since both law enforcement agencies and defense lawyers were apparently unaware of the change until The Baltimore Sun contacted them. The Judiciary's own paper trail suggests this was done under the radar with zero public debate about the rules change.

The committee’s annual report from last year shows that the change was made by eliminating a clause in the section “Access to Judicial Records,” which said, “Unless shielded by a protective order, the name, office address, office telephone number and office e-mail address, if any, relating to law enforcement officers, other public officials or employees acting in their official capacity, and expert witnesses, may be remotely accessible.”

It was unclear whether the change was debated — the rules committee has not posted minutes of its meetings since April 2016.

No one agrees with the Judiciary's change, which is probably why no one was consulted before the change was made. Everyone from city council members to state's attorney candidates to journalists find the change unwarranted, unhelpful, and a serious blow to trust-building efforts between law enforcement agencies and the communities they serve.

This unpopular move from the state judiciary suggests its members will show plenty of deference to law enforcement agencies and officers in the future. And it will continue to do so even when there's plenty of evidence out there showing officers are often untrustworthy, when not completely corrupt. It has a single reason for making this move -- officer safety -- but there's nothing in the judiciary's past that even suggests court records are being used to target police officers. Even local police departments release the names of officers involved in shootings and cases involving apparent excessive force. The Judiciary has decided to roll back transparency at the worst possible time, giving cops extra privileges they weren't even asking for and further damaging the public's trust in their public servants.


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  • icon
    DB (profile), 15 Mar 2018 @ 3:56pm

    If I'm charged with a crime, or even a suspect, my name will be part of the public record.

    If it's a high profile case I may be perp-walked in front of the press, even if there is substantial doubt that I committed the crime.

    Pictures of the arrest and mug shots are retained and made available for anyone to publish, even if I'm later cleared of all charges.

    But somehow it's too pejorative for police to have the same treatment.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 15 Mar 2018 @ 4:08pm

    Despite the apparent denials, it's almost a certainty that the police lobbied for their names to be removed, whether the pressure was applied through agency officials or through their labor union, or even some other channel. Nothing ever happens in government on its own -- things happen only after someone has applied sufficient pressure to make them happpen/

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • icon
    That One Guy (profile), 15 Mar 2018 @ 4:11pm

    Playing the long game?

    “Unless shielded by a protective order, the name, office address, office telephone number and office e-mail address, if any, relating to law enforcement officers, other public officials or employees acting in their official capacity, and expert witnesses, may be remotely accessible.”

    Given it would seem that even the police impacted had no idea this was going on, and even the union is saying that this is more than they asked for, I almost have to wonder if this is meant for the police at all, or at least primarily for them.

    If you can block the names of one category of civil servants, police in this case, then once you've made that exception it's much easier to apply that same benefit to other groups, say politicians, who might not want people to be able to dig through any records that might involve them.

    While I'll absolutely admit that this is pure conjecture the fact that they are apparently already taking steps to obscure what they're doing leaves me to wonder if this is merely another step in that direction under the guise of shoving yet another wedge between the public and police by granting them even more 'rights'.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 15 Mar 2018 @ 5:19pm

    It's been reversed already

    See reporting by Justin Fenton in the Baltimore Sun.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 15 Mar 2018 @ 6:27pm

    Maryland Law enforcement forcing children at gunpoint to ensure they receive their vaccines might have some parents FUCKING MAD AS HELL.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • icon
      Uriel-238 (profile), 15 Mar 2018 @ 8:04pm

      Herd Immunity

      While it can arguably transgress individual rights here in the states, there are good arguments for mandated vaccines.

      Yes, a mandate can violate the will of the individual, and there is a risk of adverse effects, but vaccines serve to reduce other risks (which often mitigate the first risk) but also decrease risk to everyone else in the community.

      So it's like jailing the mugger: hard on the mugger's rights. Good for the neighborhood.

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 15 Mar 2018 @ 6:38pm

    Anyone who thinks they'll get a fair trail in Maryland Courts...

    Had better think again.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • identicon
      Anonymous Coward, 15 Mar 2018 @ 7:14pm

      Re: Anyone who thinks they'll get a fair trail in Maryland Courts...

      I didn't think the courts were that rocky. The trails don't get really treacherous until you get into mountain country.

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 15 Mar 2018 @ 7:25pm

    Supposedly the names of officers can still be accessed by using local court kiosks. This makes no sense. Why would cops be "safer" if their names can only be accessed inside a local court? Wouldn't that make these (apparently imaginary) threats to officer safety much more proximate to the officers affected?

    While I disagree with the change to reduce transparency, this part makes sense on a technical level. Using those kiosks almost certainly subjects the person to general surveillance of the premises, and might also require a sign-in, showing a government-approved photo ID to a guard, etc. That makes it much harder to anonymously view these records, as compared to the anonymity of fetching them over the Internet (as was permitted before this change). Similarly, when fetching over the Internet, it was likely pretty easy to quickly fetch weeks of dockets, which would be convenient both for miscreants looking to obscure which records they cared about and for the press (whether professional or citizen journalists) looking for patterns. Reading all this information in the kiosk is likely much less convenient, discouraging readers from dumping anything they don't have a specific need to read.

    all the department had asked for was the removal of first names, not removal of officers' names entirely.

    Now that's just silly. Surnames in American culture are usually more useful in tracking people than given names. Which would you rather know: that the officer's first name is James (but no last name is given) or that the officer's first name is unspecified, but his last name is Miller? It's almost certainly easier to sort through all the Mr. Miller's of a town than to sort all the James's of a town. If the department wanted a partial masking, reducing it to first name only would have been far more opaque than last name only.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 15 Mar 2018 @ 11:39pm

    its "obligation" to protect officers

    So the court has a special obligation to police officers? Because they sure don't extend the same protection to regular citizens.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • icon
    ECA (profile), 16 Mar 2018 @ 12:26am

    Have to say it..

    Badges?
    What Badges??
    WE DONT NEED NO STINKING BADGES!!

    Im starting to know More about Aussie, Brit, Kiwi Governments then OUR OWN..
    Keep burying everything..get it Deep..

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 16 Mar 2018 @ 5:41am

    High and mighty strike again....

    Done with zero public input, behind closed doors, and without even notifying the Public Defenders office. Another example of The Gentry knowing best and telling we poor, ignorant, peasants what we need to know.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 16 Mar 2018 @ 6:34am

    Brady Disclosure

    I guess defense attorneys will be filing a lot of Brady motions.

    https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Brady_disclosure

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    ryuugami, 16 Mar 2018 @ 1:54pm

    Chanting may have been involved

    The Judiciary claims all of this was done in the open and with the consultation of stakeholders. This can't possibly be true since both law enforcement agencies and defense lawyers were apparently unaware of the change until The Baltimore Sun contacted them.

    Are you sure it can't be true? Sure, they didn't tell anyone, but until I see proof to the contrary I'll assume that they decided this while standing in a circle in the open field, holding actual stakes -- making the claim technically correct.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]


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