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Government agencies cannot charge nonprofits fees to thwart disclosure of records in the public interest, amicus brief argues

December 15, 2022

When the Maryland General Assembly passed Anton’s Law in 2021, it amended the Maryland Public Information Act (PIA) to allow public disclosure of records of police misconduct investigations. But police agencies are violating Anton’s Law by charging public interest organizations high fees when they make public information requests for these records, effectively blocking the transparency needed to stop police abuse. And police departments are not the only government agencies using such fees to avoid public scrutiny. This month, the Public Justice Center joined the ACLU of Maryland and Washington Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights and Urban Affairs, represented by Zuckerman Spaeder, in filing an amicus brief in Baltimore Police Department, et al., v. Open Justice Baltimore, arguing that state and local agencies’ frequent practice of charging nonprofit public interest organizations for public information requests violates the PIA’s purpose of ensuring government accountability.

In the brief, authors Adam Abelson and Samantha Miller of Zuckerman Spaeder explain that the PIA states that government agencies in Maryland should not charge fees for public information requests when those requests are “in the public interest.” Public interest organizations play a key role in holding government agencies accountable, and access to public records is necessary to that mission. Yet agencies increasingly charge public interest organizations thousands and sometimes hundreds of thousands of dollars, making public information requests unaffordable and deterring future requests. The brief asked the Court of Appeals (now the Supreme Court of Maryland) to uphold the intermediate appellate court’s ruling that the Baltimore Police Department could not charge its quoted fee in this case. The brief also asked the Court to clarify that the courts should not defer to agencies’ judgment when reviewing agencies’ denials of fee waiver requests from public interest organizations.