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Court upholds release of 'black book'

January 30, 2004|by DAVID DISHNEAU

The Maryland Court of Special Appeals has affirmed an order that required the city of Frederick to release to news media the "black book" documents that identified customers of a prostitution service.

Robin L. Quillon, vice president and acting publisher of The Frederick News-Post, said Thursday that the ruling by the state's second-highest court "has turned back what would have otherwise been a chilling attack on our First Amendment rights."

The case concerned records of a prostitution business that city police raided in 1999. The alleged madam, Angelika Potter, pleaded guilty 17 months later to operating a brothel and was fined $100. The city agreed, as part of the plea bargain, to return to Potter all the documents seized in the raid.

Some critics of the city's previous administration then alleged that the plea bargain was struck to avoid a public disclosure that Potter's customers included public officials and other prominent citizens.

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The News-Post immediately requested copies of the documents from police files under the Maryland Public Information Act. The Associated Press and Daniel A. Trey, a Frederick County citizen, followed with identical requests. The city denied the requests under the act's investigative records exception, which shields certain police investigatory files from public inspection.

The News-Post appealed to Frederick County Circuit Court, which ordered the city in November 2001 to release the documents in its possession. The city appealed to the Court of Special Appeals, arguing that its legal staff had correctly denied the requests.

In a decision announced Wednesday, a three-judge panel found that Debra Borden, the former assistant city attorney who rejected the requests, had not clearly stated why withholding the documents was in the public's interest. The court dismissed her arguments that disclosure would give needless publicity to cooperating witnesses, violate Potter's right to privacy and hinder future law enforcement efforts.

"Admittedly, revelation of the names listed in the black book might embarrass Ms. Potter's customers. But the invasion of their privacy in this way cannot be characterized as 'unwarranted' when balanced against the public's right to know and evaluate information of this sort," Judge James P. Salmon wrote.

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