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Attachments for Access Rules Implementation Committee Interim Report – Child Abuse and Neglect

September 13, 2014


May 26, 2005

The District Court of Maryland in Frederick County and the Frederick County State’s Attorney’s Office have refused to release charging documents of one of two men who were arrested recently in Brunswick for allegedly sexually abusing a minor.

Charging documents, which provide facts to support the criminal charges, were available to the public before new state court access rules took effect Oct. 1, 2004. Now records of certain cases, such as those that involve sexually abusing a child, are off limits.

The Gazette last week several times asked the District Court for access to charging documents of one of two men charged with a sex offense against a child in Brunswick.

  • Wilber Stone, 58, of K Street, was arrested May 11 in his home and charged with third-degree sex offense, sex abuse of a minor and child pornography of filming and a sex act, according to Brunswick Chief of Police Don Rough.
  • George Lee Harris, 42, who was living at the Green Country Inn, was arrested at the hotel and charged with second-degree sex offense, sex abuse of a minor and perverted practice.

Harris’ charging documents were available to the public and The Gazette wrote about that crime on May 19, but because of the new rules, Stone’s documents are blocked. Officials who would not provide the documents said they were labeled as “confidential” in their computer files; they said they could not access the material.

Access rules adopted last fall by the Court of Appeals, Maryland’s highest court, require the District Court to keep some records as off-limits to the public for a variety of reasons. According to a section of the 36-page rules titled “Required Denial of Inspection,” a court commissioner shall deny inspection of “a case record concerning child abuse or neglect.”

“It’s difficult to say whether [the rules] are constitutional,” said attorney Alice Neff Lucan of the Maryland, Delaware-D.C. Press Association, of which The Gazette is a member. The tradition in criminal courts is that records in courts and proceedings are open.”

Lucan said other newspapers in Maryland, such as The Star Democrat on the Eastern Shore, have encountered similar resistance from courts refusing to provide documents. She said the court’s distribution of charging documents has been inconsistent since the rules took effect.

Frederick County District Court clerks are still uncertain exactly why the court closed the documents, but Frederick County Clerk Carrie Dillard said the decisions are based on the offense, which in Stone’s case is child sex abuse.

Dillard said that Harris’ case likely also should have been blocked because it, too, involves the abuse of a child.

“Unfortunately, you should not have gotten the charging statement on Harris,” Dillard told The Gazette.

The District Court Monday was reviewing the case to determine whether Harris’ charging documents had been issued by mistake.

Dillard said all legal parties, including the State’s Attorney’s Office, are required to block from public inspection documents that are classified as “confidential” by the District Court, which determines the classification on a case by-case basis. But the Frederick County State’s Attorney’s Office is not certain it must follow the court’s lead.

When The Gazette turned to the prosecutor’s office last week to obtain Stone’s documents, State’s Attorney Scott Rolle said he reviewed the new rules and suspects the State’s Attorney’s office is not bound by them.

Rolle was originally willing to provide the documents. “In my mind, it’s a public document,” Rolle said Friday. But when he learned Monday that Judge W. Milnor Roberts denied The Gazette’s request to release the documents, he too declined to provide the statements. It is unclear whether the State’s Attorney’s Office is bound by the Roberts’ denial of The Gazette’s request or whether his decisions equated to an order to seal the case, which would prevent any legal party from providing the documents to the public.

Rolle reviewed the case, and could not identify a reason why Stone’s charging documents were off limits while other similar cases, such as Harris’ documents, were open to outside inspection.

“[Stone’s case] looked like a routine sex offense,” said Rolle, who “believes in the public’s right to know” and was baffled by Robert’s ruling. “They’re charging documents, not investigative documents.”

He said it is the first time the State’s Attorney’s office has encountered the dilemma of whether or not it is permitted to provide the “confidential” documents to the public.

Stone’s case was the first Rolle denied to the media because of the new rules.

Copyright © 2005 The Gazette – ALL RIGHTS RESERVED.





May 27, 2005

Clerks Restrict Access To Records:

Staff Writers Say Rules Shield Juvenile Cases

by C. Benjamin Ford and Rebecca McClay

The Maryland Court of Appeals’ new rules on public access to court records are causing confusion in several counties as to what documents court clerks should keep secret. The rules were intended to shield only those cases involving child abuse or neglect, said Sally Rankin, court information officer for the state judicial system in Annapolis and a member of the public access rules implementation committee.

But court officials cited the new rules as justification to block public access to charging documents in Montgomery and Frederick counties in cases where other crimes besides child abuse were charged.

The new rules went into effect on Oct. 1, 2004 after four years of study, committee meetings and public hearings. They require court officials to block access to “any action or proceeding [or] case record concerning child abuse or neglect.”

The implementation committee has determined that clerks should follow a strict definition of child abuse, which means a case record should be blocked automatically only if it involves abuse committed by a guardian of the child, Rankin said. The committee made the decision May 18 in a 6-3 vote.

The committee is expected to review its final report on June 7 and present it to Court of Appeals Chief Judge Robert M. Bell for approval. However, clerks in Frederick and Montgomery counties have interpreted the rules broadly to block access to charging documents of any suspect accused of a sex crime involving a child.

On Wednesday, Montgomery County clerks blocked Gazette reporters from reviewing charging documents on a Rockville attorney arrested last Friday on charges of third-degree sexual assault, two counts of second-degree assault, malicious destruction of property, indecent exposure and disorderly conduct. The man is accused of attempted sexual assault of a 10-year-old crossing guard on the street outside Fallsmead Elementary School in Rockville.

Montgomery County District Court Clerk Jeffrey Ward said a court commissioner blocked access to that case. But he said he intends to block such cases under his own interpretation of the rules.

“If it’s a rape and a child is 8 years old, I’m going to block it,” Ward said. “We consider it child abuse. Sally can come down here and yell at me.”

“That’s not going to happen,” Rankin said.

In Frederick County, court clerks refused to release charging documents on one man charged with sexually abusing a minor in Brunswick but released the charging documents on a second man. Frederick County Clerk Carrie Dillard later said that was a mistake.

“Unfortunately, you should not have gotten the charging statement on [him],” Dillard told The Gazette.

Rankin declined to discuss the specific cases but said she hoped the implementation committee’s work would clear up the confusion.

“I’m sorry that happened, but that’s a good real-life example of what is occurring in the field,” she said, adding that The Gazette’s article about the Frederick County cases prompted much e-mail discussion among the committee.

“The sooner we do [finish the report], the better, because of the situations that have occurred,” she said.

Most court documents are open to the public.

“There’s so many arguments from the perspective of making court proceedings public,” she said. “… The judiciary relies on the public’s trust and confidence. That’s maintained through transparency.”

Attorney Alice Neff Lucan of the Maryland-Delaware-D.C. Press Association, of which The Gazette is a member, said other court clerks have denied access as well.

“It’s difficult to say whether [the rules] are constitutional,” she said.

John C. Griep, news editor of the The Star Democrat in Easton, said his reporters tried to find out about two separate child abuse cases this spring only to be stymied by the new rules.

“The state and the general public have a strong interest in the protection of children from abuse,” Griep said. “… For the court to restrict public knowledge of what happens in these cases is a detriment to the efforts to prevent child abuse.”

Staff Writer Noelle Barton contributed to this story.

Copyright © 2005 The Gazette – ALL RIGHTS RESERVED. Privacy Statement



Judge Opens Records for Alleged Child Abuse Case


Examiner Staff Writer

A Montgomery County District Court judge agreed Thursday to grant The Examiner previously sealed court records of an alleged child abuse case at a local private school. The county had denied the paper’s multiple requests to see the records as part of its reporting of the allegations. The records will be made available today following a ruling by District Court Administrative Judge Cornelius J. Vaughey.

Welcoming the decision, Examiner Editor in Chief John Wilpers said the paper “is a strong proponent of keeping as many records open as possible so our readers can make informed decisions on governmental actions.”

UPDATED: 7:58 pm EDT July 14, 2005

Calling the county’s attempt to withhold the records “a slippery slope,” Wilpers said he hoped the decision “sends a message that court records must be available to the public.”

On June 13, Montgomery County police arrested Shedrick Adrian Young, a physical education teacher at the Chelsea School in Silver Spring, on charges he assaulted a 17-year-old student in March. Police were unable to explain whether the school promptly reported the alleged incident and The Examiner looked for answers in court documents.

Court officials withheld the documents, claiming the records were sealed under a state privacy ruling. Officials did not comment on the ruling Thursday.

The Examiner filed a suit late Wednesday challenging the rule and the paper prevailed Thursday.

Attorneys for the case welcomed the decision but expressed regret that the state rule remains in place.

“I don’t think that we should have to apply to see the record in a criminal case,” said Alice Lucan, who represented The Examiner in the case. “What if someone in the school community wanted to see this record?”




New Court Rule Bars Public From Reviewing Files:

WBAL-TV Seeks Clarification of Rule’s Intent

POSTED: 7:02 pm EDT July 14, 2005

BALTIMORE — Confusion within Maryland courts over a new rule concerning cases involving children has led to legal challenges.

Jayne Miller Reports: WBAL-TV Asks Court For Rule Clarification

WBAL-TV 11 News I-Team lead investigative reporter Jayne Miller reported the new rule took effect last October, but the real effect has surfaced more recently as court clerks realize the rule’s full definition.

Legal counsel for WBAL-TV took the first step Thursday to challenging the rule following court refusal to News I-Team inquiries to review two criminal files. Miller reported the case against Denise Lechner in Baltimore County has remained a very public matter. Authorities accused her in March in the child abuse death of her 3-year-old son, Roy Jr. (Full Story).

In the weeks following official investigations, social services authorities publicly disclosed their handling of the case, resulting in a grand jury indictment against Lechner. Under former court rules, the county courthouse would maintain Lechner’s court file as public record because the defendant is an adult.

However, court officials refused Wednesday 11 News’ requests to review the file, citing the new court rule. Miller said reporters in other parts of the state have encountered similar problems. The rule, in part, reads:

 “… the custodian shall deny inspection of, in any action or proceeding, a case record concerning child abuse or neglect.”

Miller said the strict interpretation of the rule can bar the public from accessing criminal court files about any defendant charged or convicted of crimes that include child abuse, whether physical or sexual.

While the state’s sex offender registry remains open to the public, the court files of individual sex offenders, if the victim is under 18, may be sealed.

In Annapolis, officials with the state’s highest court acknowledge the new rule has caused confusion among court clerks, and a review of the rule is now under way.

The lawyer representing WBAL-TV is first seeking to clarify the intent of the new rule. On Thursday, she sent a letter to the administrative judge in Baltimore County.


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