By this Saturday — barring technical glitches — the names of police officers who arrest suspects will reappear in the online case search database. So decrees Chief Judge Mary Ellen Barbera of the Maryland Court of Appeals.
“Sometimes small changes can have big consequences, and that was certainly the case here,” Barbera said yesterday, as she and fellow judges signed on to an amendment of the judiciary’s rules restoring police identities to Maryland Judiciary Case Search.
The vote to put things back the way they were was unanimous, but it was a weird and winding road to get there.
Police Disavow the Policy
The Maryland Judiciary provoked outrage last week when, without notice, police names were stripped from the online resource, which allows anyone with an internet connection to see the criminal and civil case histories of anyone whose name they spell right (as long as it’s spelled right in the court record).
The change came months after an obscure body, the Standing Committee on Rules of Practice and Procedure, voted to replace the first names of police officers with an initial, a change the Anne Arundel police union has advocated for years.
But in an illustration of the vagaries of judicial procedures, bureaucracy and information technology, the full names of all officers were stripped from the database.
Called out by the press, the judiciary on Friday released an unsigned statement defending the change in the interest of police officer safety. By knowing the names of those responsible for their arrests, went the argument, criminals could find out where cops live, and harm them or their families.
But police departments around the state disavowed the policy, and even Anne Arundel police union President Corporal O’Brien Atkinson said his organization never argued for the names to be removed entirely.
“We’ve given you the power & protocols to use lethal force. Can you stand by your police work or not?”
Advocates for police reform pointed out that the case search database is a crucial tool for checking arrest patterns of particular officers.
The former Gun Trace Task Force cops convicted in the federal RICO case all worked many cases that are now suspect, and Case Search has been a key resource for plaintiff’s lawyers as well.
The reaction was blistering, on editorial pages and online, with critics like Wire co-creator David Simon heaping scorn on the sudden anonymizing of the police force.
“We’ve given you the power & protocols to use lethal force,” he tweeted. “Can you stand by your police work or not?”
On Monday the judiciary called an unprecedented “emergency meeting,” complete with an open hearing, to reassess the policy.
About 30 activists and lawyers, including both Thiru Vignarajah, and Ivan Bates, who are challenging Baltimore State’s Attorney Marilyn Mosby in the upcoming Democratic primary, packed a conference room on the fourth floor of the Robert C. Murphy Courts of Appeal Building in Annapolis.
Though the judiciary has touted its transparency, just finding the place required some effort, as construction on the grounds obscures the entrance and requires one to approach the building through a tunnel of scaffolding.
Policy Hindered Expungement
And although reporters like the Sun’s Justin Fenton took the lead criticizing the move, and police watchdogs protested loudest, turns out that removing police names from the online case files had a larger potential impact on ordinary people convicted of misdemeanors seeking to have their cases expunged.
“Filling out a Waiver of Liability in an expungement case requires knowing the name of the arresting officer,” Matthew Stubenberg, the director of information technology and a staff attorney at Maryland Volunteers Lawyer Service told the rules committee.
“We see up to 6,000 expungement cases a month,” Amy Petkousek, of Maryland Legal Aid, told the judges.
Expungements of cases less than three years old require the waiver, he says, and other procedures vary from county to county, so removing the officers’ names could cause delays in those cases. He added that removing the names without notice caused his organization’s court monitoring software to crash.
“We see up to 6,000 expungement clients per month,” Amy Petkousek director of advocacy for Maryland Legal Aid told the judges. Without the time or staff to go to all the courthouses to pull the case files, those expungement processes would be backlogged interminably.
Rare just a few years ago, expungement of criminal records is now common, and advocates of that policy say it helps former convicts get and keep jobs, reducing recidivism.
“I’m very worried about the future of these clinics and the clients it will impact,” she said.
Activist Duane “Shorty” Davis told the judges that their actions affect him directly as a founder of the Baltimore Bloc and an “ex-felon.”
Baltimore police, he said, “came to my house, put guns to my head because of my advocacy” against police violence and corruption. Citing Rev. Martin Luther King’s march on Selma, he said, “he crossed that bridge and y’all are taking us backwards.”
The judges listened intently, asking questions of some of the speakers.
Barbera complimented Davis on his speech.
“I’ve been practicing,” Davis replied, gesturing to others in the gallery:
“They will tell you, usually I am very rude.”
The Error of Their Ways
The testimony hardly seemed necessary, as the judges moved to “restore the language” they had quietly removed last June from the rules governing case search.
There followed some discussion about which rule would be amended, then discussion with State Court Administrator Pamela Q. Harris about whether the names can be restored by week’s end.
“We’ll get it done,” she replied.
“Transparency has never been more important, especially in Baltimore City,” Vignarajah said.
“So it’s gratifying to see the judiciary not just point out the error but fix it.”
“We really have to thank the courts for moving as quickly as they were able to,” he said. “It shows what can happen when the whole system wants to work collaboratively.”