Members of the public seeking access to government records, even in this era of reported leaks of documents, is most commonly obtained through the federal Freedom of Information Act or the Maryland equivalent, the Maryland Public Information Act (PIA). The Court of Appeals recently addressed its application to police records in a case called Gary Alan Glass v. Anne Arundel County.
This appeal arose from PIA requests following an incident between a motorist, the petitioner Mr. Glass, and an off-duty police officer. As the Court’s majority opinion noted, “who was at fault we do not know and need not determine,” but ultimately after an internal investigation the officer was not disciplined and the motorist was acquitted from a traffic citation. In the course of that case the petitioner was allowed access to some police documents, but as the opinion noted the matter “has achieved an afterlife in several judicial and other forums over the past six years.” The majority opinion reiterates that public policy under the PIA is strongly in favor of disclosure of government records, subject to a number of exceptions including a mandatory exception for personnel records of public employees. Indeed, an earlier appeal had upheld the County Police Department’s decision not to disclose the police internal affairs file as a personnel record. The opinion notes that the public agency whose records custodian receives a PIA request must conduct a search reasonably calculated to reveal records responsive to the request, and must provide a written explanation why certain records were not disclosed. Such a decision may be challenged in Court, with the agency bearing the burden of justifying its decision.
In this case, the trial judge had ruled that the Police Department knowingly and willfully violated the PIA in not disclosing certain documents. The Court of Appeals noted that petitioner had actually obtained a number of records he sought, but agreed with the intermediate appellate Court that there was insufficient evidence in the record that the County had violated the PIA in its search of emails, the internal affairs file and the Police Chief’s records. It also held that the search of the Police Chief’s records was reasonable, and that the petitioner was not entitled in this case to an injunction requiring an additional “remedial search” of police records.
Thomas Patrick Ryan is a partner in the Rockville law firm of McCarthy Wilson, which specializes in civil litigation.