‘Rea­son­able’ ac­cess

Sur­vey finds Md. po­lice agen­cies are in higher realm for pub­lic records fees

The Calvert Recorder - - Front Page - By AN­DREW SCHOTZ Spe­cial to The Calvert Recorder

While many gov­ern­ments across Mary­land charge 25 or 50 cents a page for copies of pub­lic doc­u­ments, po­lice de­part­ments’ fees are sev­eral times as much.

Po­lice com­monly re­quire $5 or $10 for copies of ac­ci­dent or in­ci­dent re­ports, even for a sin­gle page.

Fees run higher in Bal­ti­more County, which charges $15, and Sal­is­bury in Wi­comico County, which charges $20.

The flat fee in Sykesville in Car­roll County — $25 for a re­port re­gard­less of the num­ber of pages — was the steep­est among more than three dozen de­part­ments re­viewed in a Mary­land-Delaware-D.C. Press As­so­ci­a­tion pro­ject.

Mary­land’s Pub­lic In­for­ma­tion Act does not man­date spe­cific fees for gov­ern­ment bod­ies in pro­vid­ing records. In­stead, the law says they may charge a “rea­son­able” fee, “bear­ing a rea­son­able re- la­tion­ship to the re­cov­ery of ac­tual costs in­curred by a gov­ern­men­tal unit.”

With­out fur­ther dic­tates, though, gov­ern­ment bod­ies and agen­cies at all lev­els are on their own in set­ting fee sched­ules. Po­lice de­part­ments rou­tinely con­sider ac­ci­dent and in­ci­dent re­ports in a dif­fer­ent uni­verse than other doc­u­ments made avail­able for lower fees.

Al­most all of the 39 po­lice agen­cies in­cluded in a re­cent Mary­land- Delaware- D. C. Press As­so­ci­a­tion sur­vey charge at least $5 for an ac­ci­dent re­port, an in­ci­dent re­port or both.

The Calvert County Sher­iff’s Of­fice charges $10 for an ac­ci­dent re­port, $2 per page for a re­con­struc­tion re­port, $5 for a crim­i­nal re­port of up to five pages and $2 for each ad­di­tional page be­yond that. It also charges $10 fo r a video

CD and $1 for a photo.

In neigh­bor­ing Charles County, the sher­iff’s of­fice charges $8 for the first 10 pages of a re­port and 50 cents for each ad­di­tional page, but fees are ei­ther re­duced or waived for do­mes­tic vi­o­lence vic­tims, in­mates and the in­di­gent. St. Mary’s County Sher­iff’s Of­fice charges a flat $5 fee per in­ci­dent or ac­ci­dent re­port across the board, un­less the in­di­vid­ual re­quest­ing the re­port is the crime vic­tim, in which case there is no charge.

In con­trast, among 25 lo­cal gov­ern­ments and state agen­cies sur­veyed sep­a­rately about their gen­eral copy fees for records — un­re­lated to their po­lice depart­ment — none charges more than 50 cents per page. About half charge 25 cents a page.

Six of those gov­ern­ments say they start with free copies of records, in­clud­ing up to 40 pages at no charge in Rockville in Mont­gomery County.

The MDDC fo­cus on po­lice agency fees — par­tic­u­larly for pa­per records — in­cluded 12 of the state’s 23 coun­ties plus Bal­ti­more city and 22 of the state’s 83 mu­nic­i­pal po­lice agen­cies.

Of the county agen­cies sur­veyed, half charged $5 or less. One charged at least $15. Of the mu­nic­i­pal agen­cies sur­veyed, only one charged more than $10. Ten charged $10 and seven charged $5. The town of Sykesville stood alone in charg­ing as much as $25.

Sykesville Po­lice Chief Michael Spauld­ing said his depart­ment’s fee was $15 be­fore he be­came chief five years ago. The town raised the fee to $25 about a year ago, but will waive it for “some­one who is down and out,” he said. Still, he said, “we don’t want to be at the top of that list.”

While Sykesville and oth­ers im­pose a flat fee, other de­part­ments charge based on the num­ber of pages.

Jour­nal­ists across Mary­land par­tic­i­pated in the two-month MDDC ex­am­i­na­tion of po­lice de­part­ments.

The find­ings were timed for pub­li­ca­tion dur­ing Sun­shine Week, an an­nual na­tion­wide fo­cus on the im­por­tance of pub­lic in­for­ma­tion which this year runs through March 16. The Amer­i­can So­ci­ety of News Edi­tors and the Re­porters Com­mit­tee for Free­dom of the Press are co­or­di­nat­ing the week, which started with Sun­shine Sun­day on March 10.

A few po­lice de­part­ments sur­veyed have poli­cies with lower fees.

Frost­burg po­lice in Al­le­gany County do not charge for a re­port of up to 12 pages un­less the re­quest is “com­mer­cial.” Of­ten, those pay­ing for ac­ci­dent and in­ci­dent re­ports across the state are at­tor­neys and in­sur­ance com­pa­nies, which con­sider the fees part of the cost of busi­ness.

Mary­land Nat­u­ral Re­sources Po­lice is an­other ex­am­ple. They pro­vide the first 10 pages for free, then charge 25 cents a page af­ter that.

Many de­part­ments make ac­com­mo­da­tions, giv­ing free copies of re­ports to crime vic­tims or, as re­quired by state law, to peo­ple who can’t af­ford to pay.

The Pub­lic In­for­ma­tion Act also al­lows a waiver if in­for­ma­tion is in pub­lic in­ter­est. Un­der this con­sid­er­a­tion, some agen­cies don’t charge jour­nal­ists for copies of records.

While Bal­ti­more County po­lice raised their fee a few years ago for a re­port, from $10 to $15, the Hager­stown Po­lice Depart­ment in Wash­ing­ton County took the op­po­site step, low­er­ing its fee.

The cost of an ac­ci­dent re­port in Hager­stown was $5 for the first four pages and $1 for each ad­di­tional page. Now, an ac­ci­dent re­port is free for some­one who picks it up in per­son or gets an elec­tronic copy. The depart­ment adds a charge for postage if the per­son asks for a copy by mail.

Hager­stown Po­lice Chief Paul Kifer said the depart­ment talked to a city at­tor­ney and re-eval­u­ated what it charges, seek­ing a fair pol­icy.

The cost re­mains $5 for up to four pages for an in­ci­dent re­port, which Kifer said is likely to re­quire more at­ten­tion to redact sen­si­tive in­for­ma­tion than an ac­ci­dent re­port. The cost per ad­di­tional page is 25 cents.

“The ma­jor­ity of peo­ple can come up with $5,” Kifer said. If they can’t, the depart­ment waives the fee.

“It’s about be­ing fair and open and trans­par­ent,” he said.

Many po­lice de­part­ments said they be­lieve their fee pol­icy meets the “rea­son­able” stan­dard, of­ten cit­ing the need to re­coup la­bor costs, par­tic­u­larly time spent redact­ing pri­vate or sen­si­tive in­for­ma­tion.

How­ever, the Pub­lic In­for­ma­tion Act doesn’t al­low a charge for the first two hours of fill­ing a re­quest. Some de­part­ments get around that by charg­ing a flat fee for a re­quest.

Af­ter rais­ing its fee from $10 to $15, the Bal­ti­more County Po­lice Depart­ment has one of the high­est for an in­ci­dent or ac­ci­dent re­port. Cpl. Shawn Vin­son, a depart­ment spokesman, said the fee is jus­ti­fi­able, “know­ing the amount of work that goes into it.”

He said it can take sev­eral hours to re­view a re­port be­fore it can be copied and re­leased. Bal­ti­more County po­lice do not give out a date of birth, the iden­tity of a ju­ve­nile who might face pun­ish­ment, de­tails of med­i­cal treat­ment, ex­act ad­dresses or ve­hi­cle iden­ti­fi­ca­tion num­bers.

Un­der the Pub­lic In­for­ma­tion Act, af­ter two free hours de­voted to fill­ing a re­quest, a gov­ern­ment body may charge for la­bor based on the salary of the em­ployee do­ing the work. Agen­cies must cal­cu­late costs based on “each in­di­vid­ual’s salary and ac­tual time” con­nected to the re­sponse.

Bal­ti­more County breaks the cost down that way. Top hourly scale is $60 for at­tor­neys and man­agers, fol­lowed by $50 for po­lice of­fi­cers, $35 for other po­si­tions and $15 for sea­sonal em­ploy­ees.

For the Calvert County Sher­iff’s Of­fice, the hourly la­bor charge is $28. It’s $15 an hour for the West­min­ster Po­lice Depart­ment.

The Anne Arun­del County Po­lice Depart­ment charges a $21 “re­port re­trieval” fee for archived re­ports.

The largest law en­force­ment agency in the state, Mary­land State Po­lice, charges a $4 flat fee to search for an ac­ci­dent re­port, even if none is found.

Fur­ther re­view

Mary­land As­sis­tant At­tor­ney Gen­eral Jef­frey Hochstetler, who works on pub­lic records is­sues, said he could not com­ment on PIA prac­tices for this story.

In 2015, the state cre­ated an om­buds­man po­si­tion to me­di­ate dis­putes be­tween re­questers and agen­cies over pub­lic records re­quests. Me­di­a­tion is vol­un­tary.

Lisa Ker­sh­ner, the om­buds­man, de­clined to com­ment about spe­cific fees and poli­cies.

The Pub­lic In­for­ma­tion Act Com­pli­ance Board, which also was cre­ated in 2015, plays a dif­fer­ent role. The board — for which Hochstetler is le­gal coun­sel — hears and rules on for­mal com­plaints in which some­one chal­lenges when a gov­ern­ment charges at least $350 to fill a re­quest. The board may order a pub­lic body to re­duce or re­fund a fee. Com­plaints about un­rea­son­able fees are spe­cific to that sit­u­a­tion.

In Novem­ber 2016, the board found that when Bal­ti­more County po­lice charged $2 a page for records in one case, it was a “rea­son­able fee.” The depart­ment filled a re­quest by pro­vid­ing 1,810 pages of records (of which 184 were redacted) and 33 com­pact discs, for a to­tal of $4,554.

“Nonethe­less,” the board said, “we ad­vise that cus­to­di­ans who charge flat per-page fees must be able to show that the flat rate re­flects the ac­tual costs of pro­duc­ing the records.”

When PIA is­sues come be­fore the state leg­is­la­ture, leg­is­la­tion likely would come be­fore the House Health and Gov­ern­ment Op­er­a­tions Com­mit­tee and the Se­nate Ed­u­ca­tion, Health and En­vi­ron­men­tal Com­mit­tee. Del. Shane Pen­der­grass (D-Howard), who chairs the House com­mit­tee, said the dis­crep­ancy is­sue has not come be­fore her com­mit­tee and she was not aware of it.

She said pub­lic records fees should be based on ac­tual costs, and sug­gested that some­one dis­sat­is­fied with a fee chal­lenge it with that gov­ern­ment body.

Sen. Paul Pin­sky (D-Prince Ge­orge’s), the chair­man of the Se­nate com­mit­tee, ex­pressed more con­cern and in­ter­est in the is­sue when it was de­scribed to him. He said he was sur­prised po­lice de­part­ments were charg­ing higher fees, par­tic­u­larly $15 in Bal­ti­more County, which he called a “big leap” from what other gov­ern­ment bod­ies charge. He asked for more in­for­ma­tion so his of­fice could in­ves­ti­gate and de­cide whether it’s worth leg­is­la­tion in the cur­rent ses­sion or next year “if it’s be­ing abused.”

SUB­MIT­TED GRAPHIC

This graph shows how much a two-page ac­ci­dent re­port would cost at 20 dif­fer­ent po­lice de­part­ments across the state.

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