ACLU Wins Lawsuit to Uncover Settlement Documents in Police Misconduct Case
For Immediate Release:
SALISBURY, MD - In an important victory for government transparency and police accountability, Wicomico County Circuit Judge W. Newton Jackson III yesterday ordered the City of Salisbury to publicly release records related to a police misconduct case, including settlement and award information the City had unlawfully claimed was “confidential.”
Investigative reporter Stephen Janis, of the Real News Network, a plaintiff in the case, hailed the Court’s ruling: "This decision again makes clear that secrecy has no place in the process of spending public dollars with regards to police settlements. We hope the city will comply with motion in a timely fashion."
After a remarkable rejection in late May by Judge Jackson of all of the City’s arguments against production of the settlement documents, the City still resisted production of the documents. So the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) of Maryland filed a motion for summary judgment to compel the City to release the requested information.
ACLU cooperating attorney Charles D. Austin, of Washington, D.C’s Crowell & Moring LLP, argued the motion in Wicomico County Circuit Court Tuesday and won, with Judge Jackson ordering the City to produce all requested documents within ten days. The City failed even to show up in Court for the Tuesday hearing to defend against the motion—signifying the meritlessness of its arguments for secrecy.
“We are pleased the Court’s rulings this summer favor the transparency that is critical to accountability in our public institutions and an informed citizenry,” Austin remarked following the Court’s ruling Tuesday.
The Salisbury case is one in a pair of lawsuits filed in June 2017 to challenge "gag orders" that silence victims of police abuse as a condition of resolving their cases. The lawsuit against the City of Salisbury was brought on behalf of the ACLU and the Real News Network (RNN), a news organization denied their right under the Maryland Public Information Act to obtain publicly available information in the government’s possession. The RNN reports information concerning cases that involve police abuse, and was denied their right here to report newsworthy information that would allow the public to hold the City and its police accountable to the terms of the settlement agreement in that case.
The original Public Information Act request by the ACLU and the RNN sought information the City was trying to conceal about its settlement of a 2014 federal civil rights case in which four Salisbury University students sued the city of Salisbury and one officer with the Salisbury Police Department (SPD), alleging police brutality, excessive force, illegal seizure, detention and arrest. The students’ lawsuit also alleged that SPD personnel confiscated surveillance footage and created fictional narratives to cover up what happened. In 2015, the federal court hearing the students’ case concluded that the plaintiffs sufficiently proved illegal patterns and practices by the SPD to allow the case to move forward.
In 2016, the case was settled, but all details of the settlement, including the amount of the award, were withheld from the press and public. When the ACLU of Maryland and the Real News Network filed an MPIA request seeking documents about the settlement, the City rebuffed the request, claiming that neither it nor the SPD had any documentation regarding the settlement. This lack of transparency has caused at least one of the student plaintiffs to question whether SPD was holding its officers accountable for their actions, though he is silenced by the gag order that governs the settlement and risks losing his award if he speaks out.
The Real News Network is represented by Charles Austin, Lauren Williams, and Rick Wallace of Crowell & Moring LLP, as well as ACLU of Maryland Legal Director Deborah Jeon and Equal Justice Works Fellow Nick Steiner.