A RECENT APPEALS court decision in Maryland is a blow to the power of government watchdogs and to the public’s right to information. The court’s decision is so wrongheaded, and such a whack at government transparency, that it demands a rewrite of state law.
The case stems from an incident in November 2008, when a Montgomery County assistant fire chief crashed his county-owned car into a police cruiser and two civilian vehicles. The incident prompted an internal police investigation into the conduct of the officers who responded to the scene. Despite the severity of the crash — and the suspicion that the chief may have been drunk — the official was fined just $130 for failure to control his speed. And the police probe concluded in 2009 that police had not acted with favoritism toward the fire official.
But according to an eyewitness account from a rookie officer, as documented by The Post’s reporting, the chief had alcohol on his breath. Notwithstanding reasonable requests from the county’s inspector general, the police department refused to release documents related to the officers from the internal investigation; that precipitated a drawn-out legal contest.
On June 29, Maryland’s Court of Appeals, the state’s highest court, vindicated the county police. In a split decision, the court said the department is not required to release internal documents from the investigation to the county’s inspector general. Writing for the majority, Judge Lynne A. Battaglia sided with the police, who argued that the release of their personnel files — or pertinent information obtained during the investigation — would cause irreversible harm to their reputations. She cited the Maryland Public Information Act, which bars disclosure of personnel records.
We think she’s misreading the law.
The court’s decision limited an entirely legal and necessary attempt to get the truth behind what occurred during the 2008 crash. The probe into the police response to the incident constitutes a serious investigation, not a frivolous invasion of privacy. Moreover, the decision sets a terrible precedent, allowing officials to throw up roadblocks to government openness, even investigations of police corruption, by hiding information behind personnel records.
Judge Sally D. Adkins,writing for herself and another judge who voted against the five-person majority, correctly contended that the investigatory nature of the documents warrants their disclosure to the county inspector general and the public.
Lawmakers in Annapolis should work toward a legislative remedy, perhaps by allowing inspectors general access to investigative records in personnel files when official wrongdoing is suspected. Without such action, the court’s decision will allow mistrust of government, and of police departments in particular, to fester.