PRINCE FREDERICK, MD. – Compelled by disturbing accounts from local residents about invasive police searches of Black people, and the Sheriff’s demand that more than $12,000 be paid to see documents related to searches, the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) of Maryland on March 2, 2022, sued Calvert County Sheriff Mike Evans and his office in order to access this vital information that should be made public under Maryland’s Public Information Act (MPIA). Support and organizing for local police accountability are growing in Calvert County, and the community has a right to know how law enforcement treats all residents.
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.
“Free access to the truth about harm caused by the law enforcement is key to insuring against repetition,” said Dara Johnson, legal advocacy associate. “Ultimately, it’s about changing the culture of police misconduct that has plagued Calvert County for too long; shining a light on the reality of harassment and abuse practiced by the Sheriff’s Office, especially against Black and Brown community members, is vital to holding them accountable.”
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 General Assembly instructed that agencies should not charge fees to access public information where waiving fees would be in the public interest,” said Adam Abelson, a partner at Zuckerman Spaeder LLP, ACLU’s co-counsel in the lawsuit. “As set forth in the complaint, the Calvert Sheriff’s Office’s denial of the ACLU’s fee waiver was arbitrary and capricious, and thus we are asking the Circuit Court to order that the waiver be granted and the responsive documents produced.”
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.