CALVERT COUNTY – Judge John Nugent recently denied an attempt by Calvert County Sheriff Mike Evans to have a lawsuit dismissed that seeks public records without onerous charges amounting more than $12,000. In March, compelled by disturbing accounts from local residents about invasive police searches of Black people, and the Sheriff’s demand of high fees to see documents related to the searches, the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) of Maryland sued the Sheriff and his office in order to access this vital information that should be made public under Maryland’s Public Information Act (MPIA).
The following quote can be attributed to Dara Johnson, Legal Advocacy Coordinator for the ACLU of Maryland: “We look forward to continuing this action to ensure real access for communities to public information on police misconduct.”
The ACLU contends that Sheriff Evans’s use of burdensome fees to withhold public information that might reveal police misconduct is part of a troubling new statewide pattern, in response to Anton’s Law – the 2021 law named for Eastern Shore teenager Anton Black who was murdered in 2018 by an officer with a long record of past misconduct that was concealed by local officials. Anton’s Law amended the Maryland Public Information Act to make records of policing complaints and discipline more transparent and available, to help guard against police abuse.
In July 2021 – prompted by complaints made to the ACLU about abusive and unconstitutional conduct by the Calvert Sheriff’s Office – the organization requested documents related to strip searches and body cavity searches conducted by sheriff’s personnel since 2017. Among the search records sought were any video and/or audio recordings, including dashboard camera footage and/or body camera footage, as well as field observation reports, criminal investigation/case reports, arrest reports and charging documents.
As is the ACLU’s standard practice in its work to advance civil rights, the organization’s request sought a waiver of charges for the request under the MPIA provision governing requests made in the public interest. In response, the Sheriff’s Office conceded that it does have documents responsive to the ACLU request, but rejected the request for waiver of fees despite the clear importance of this information to the public. The Sheriff’s Office refuses to produce the public records unless the ACLU pays the full amount of fees it seeks to charge – starting at $12,000, at minimum.
The team involved in filing this legal action includes Adam Abelson, Justin Lewis, and D’Ann Vermilye of Zuckerman Spaeder LLP, and Deborah Jeon, Gina Elleby, and Dara Johnson of the ACLU of Maryland.