‘Finally won one’: Court of Appeals reverses rule change that struck police officers from court database

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The Maryland Court of Appeals. Back row, from left to right: Judge Michele D. Hotten, Judge Robert N. McDonald, Judge Shirley M. Watts, Judge Joseph M. Getty. Front row, from left to right: Judge Clayton Greene, Jr., Chief Judge Mary Ellen Barbera, Judge Sally D. Adkins.

Duane “Shorty” Davis stood before the judges of the Maryland Court of Appeals, the highest court in the state, and told them he was an ex-felon. He was the one who left a toilet outside a courthouse in Towson, triggering a bomb scare, he reminded them. He’s had hostile encounters with the Baltimore Police Department, he recounted.

And he said the recent decision that resulted in the removal of law enforcement officers’ names from the online database Case Search affects his work as a community activist with Baltimore Bloc.

“We can’t police the police if you’re hiding their names and faces,” he said.

Another Baltimore activist, Beth Emmerling, later re-emphasized the point.

“Without being able to look at Case Search, we can no longer see, we can no longer track what’s happening with the police,” she said.

Both pointed to the Gun Trace Task Force case that put six officers in federal prison and detailed years of corruption and abuses by a group of Baltimore police officers responsible for getting weapons off the street.

Emmerling said she’s worked with victims of police brutality and has seen people–most of them the marginalized and poor–traumatized by their encounters with the people sworn to protect them. She told the judges she has lost trust in the police.

“Who do you go to?” she said. “There’s no one to go to. So we work together ourselves.”

After hearing the testimony of Davis, Emmerling, defense attorneys and judicial advocates, the Court of Appeals unanimously decided to reinstate language in the Rules of Practice and Procedure that would put the names of arresting officers back into Case Search.

Administrators hope to have the change in place by the end of this week.

Earlier in the hearing, lawyers that work to help people to get their records expunged stressed the importance of having officers’ names in the database. Amy Petkovsek, director of advocacy for training and pro bono with Maryland Legal Aid, said her organization holds clinics for people trying to expunge past convictions, and they handle about 6,000 cases a month.

“These are the most indigent, low-income residents in the state of Maryland,” she said.

One of her colleagues, staff attorney Sunny Desai, said their clinics had grown “organically” because of the demand.

“It’s a very exciting process–their job prospects increase,” he said.

The judges mostly listened. The subject of removing officers’ names–a move supported by Anne Arundel County police that led the rules committee to strike language pertaining to names in the database–came up during a question from Judge Sally D. Adkins.

Petkovsek said it could be a problem with common names, like, say, T. Johnson, since people having their records expunged are waiving their right to sue the officer, and only having a first initial could create hurdles.

But if that is to be addressed again, it will be at a later date. After testimony wrapped up, a motion was presented to reinstate the rule that puts an arresting officer’s name in case search, and it quickly passed.

As the judges and legal administrators hashed out some of the fine details, Davis, standing in the back of the room, said, “Yay! Finally won one.”

Chief Judge Mary Ellen Barbera closed out the meeting by noting: “Sometimes small mistakes have big consequences, and that’s certainly what we had happen here.”

In a statement released earlier Tuesday, Barbera reiterated that this was an “honest mistake,” and said that ultimately the rules committee only serves in an advisory capacity.

“This Court, and only this Court, has the power to adopt changes to the Rules,” she wrote. “We, the members of the Court of Appeals, adopted the 193rd report, and we take responsibility for any error therein.”

Brandon Weigel

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