Report: Police Erred In Activist Surveillance

ANNAPOLIS, Md. — A report has concluded the Maryland State Police intruded on the ability of law-abiding residents to express themselves freely by conducting surveillance of anti-war and death-penalty opposition groups.

The review of the 14-month surveillance in 2005 and 2006 was conducted by former Maryland Attorney General Stephen Sachs. He spoke about the findings at a news conference with Gov. Martin O’Malley and Maryland State Police Superintendent Col. Terrence Sheridan on Tuesday.

“There was no public safety justification. Put bluntly, this was, at the Maryland State Police at the time, a systemic obliviousness,” Sachs said.


He said he found that police investigators believed they were seeking to protect the public from potential disturbances through the surveillance, but they failed to consider its impact on civil liberties.


The state police said the surveillance was launched out of concern about violent protests surrounding two planned death row executions in 2005. Internal police documents showed that undercover officers infiltrated peace meetings and anti-capital punishment groups.


“The state police improperly classified some of these groups and individuals as security threats and suspected terrorists,” Sachs said.


“It depicts an utter failure of systemic control within the Maryland State Police,” said David Rocha of the American Civil Liberties Union.


The ACLU is continuing its own probe into the domestic spying, saying groups other than the ones the state admitted to tracking were spied on as well, such as Red Emma’s Bookstore and Coffee House in Mount Vernon.


“It’s a space for people to come and share information. For the police to be sending in undercover agents to activities — coming to our space to see what we are doing — is really an unacceptable thing,” said bookstore worker Kate Khatib.


The ACLU said an email dated January 2005 is from an undercover agent who contacted Red Emma’s intending to attend a political lecture sponsored by them. The state said their infiltration started in March 2005.


“What legitimate interest do they have in doing that? The answer is simple. They don’t quite have one. But they still have to explain what they were doing and what they collected,” Rocha said.


Sheridan said the state police already were moving swiftly to implement four recommendations in the review, including:


  • Creating new regulations prohibiting covert surveillance of “advocacy” or “protest” groups, unless police have reasonable suspicion the law will be broken and a less-intrusive method of investigation is not likely to bring results.
  • Creating standards for collecting and disseminating criminal intelligence information.
  • Revising and possibly ending the state police Case Explorer database, which was designed to share information with authorities in the Washington-Baltimore High Intensity Drug Trafficking Area.
  • Contacting all individuals who were described in the Case Explorer database as being suspected of involvement in “terrorism” and purge the entries from the database after review by people who were wrongly entered into it. 

    “We’re going to take these four recommendations and run with them,” Sheridan said. “We’ve already started on some of the recommendations, putting in place guidelines – strict guidelines – for the collection and dissemination of data, and I think that’s terribly important to us.” 

    Sheridan also said he would have to approve any covert surveillance. 

    In the review, Sachs emphasized that state police failed to assess the consequences of covert surveillance on lawful gatherings. 

    “Moreover, I found no evidence that anyone, at any time, questioned whether there was reasonable suspicion of criminal activity or other compelling justification for the covert surveillance,” Sachs wrote. 

    While state police said undercover troopers only attended open meetings and public protests, Sachs pointed out that the lead investigator used a fictitious identity and posed as a supporter of the groups that were monitored. 

    Sachs found the surveillance violated federal regulations by entering findings into HIDTA, a federally funded initiative. Federal regulations require sharing intelligence through the system “only if there is reasonable suspicion that the individual is involved in criminal conduct or activity and the information is relevant to that criminal conduct or activity.” 

    “Again, no such reasonable suspicion existed with respect to the investigation at issue here,” Sachs wrote, noting that police stopped sharing the information in HIDTA in late 2005 on their own initiative. 

    The ACLU said Tuesday it filed public information requests to determine if state police spied on organizations beyond the activist groups it has already admitted to tracking. 

    Sachs’ review, which O’Malley called for in July, was conducted by Sachs, Deputy Attorney General J.B. Howard and Assistant Attorney General Josh Auerbach. 

    Sachs also wrote that he requested a brief interview with former Gov. Robert Ehrlich, who was governor at the time of the surveillance. But Ehrlich declined the request through Jervis Finney, who was Ehrlich’s chief legal counsel, Sachs wrote.