PRINCESS ANNE, MD - In a long-awaited ruling released late Wednesday, the Court of Special Appeals reinstated the legal challenge of a Somerset County woman who was denied information about how Maryland State Police (MSP) treated the citizen complaint she filed against a state trooper who left her an outrageous voicemail message in which he twice referenced her using a racial slur. The appeals court ruled that MSP could not make blanket claims that every document pertaining to Teleta S. Dashiell's complaint of police misconduct must be kept secret.
"The Court's ruling means that police departments can no longer categorically refuse to let the public see records about whether and how police are policing themselves," said ACLU of Maryland attorney Sonia Kumar. "And, as recent events in Maryland and across the country clearly show, communities need exactly this kind of information to be able to hold police accountable when they are unwilling to do it themselves."
"The police should tell you what happens to your own complaint," said ACLU client Teleta Dashiell. "To this day, I still don't know what the Maryland State Police did about the officer, and that's just not right."
Background about the case:
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:
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.
Facts of the case:
On November 5, 2009, Sergeant John Maiello, an MSP trooper, contacted 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. 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.
As the Court of Special Appeals noted in its opinion, the trial court's ruling was in stark contrast to a January 2013 Maryland Court of Appeals decision 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 state's high court ruled that MSP had to turn over records pertaining to racial profiling complaints under the state's public information law.
Teleta Dashiell is represented by pro bono attorney Jeff Johnson of Dickstein Shapiro LLP, as well as by ACLU of Maryland Legal Director Deborah Jeon, and Staff Attorney Sonia Kumar.