Judge Rules Ocean City Had Right To Respect Family Wishes To Not Release Drowning Victim’s Name

Judge Rules Ocean City Had Right To Respect Family Wishes To Not Release Drowning Victim’s Name
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OCEAN CITY — A Worcester County Circuit Court judge this week opined the Ocean City Police Department met its burden under the Maryland Public Information Act to withhold the name of a 17-year-old drowning victim.

In September, The Daily Times and its parent Gannett Company Inc. filed suit in Worcester County Circuit Court against the Ocean City Mayor and Council and the police department seeking to force the town to release the drowning victim’s name. Last Friday, a motions hearing was held in Circuit Court during which the case was presented, including a motion by the plaintiff for summary judgment.

The hearing closed with Judge Thomas C. Groton not rendering a decision on the motions. Rather, Groton heard the arguments and told the parties he would render a written opinion. On Wednesday, Groton entered his opinion on the motion for summary judgment, ruling the town’s police department did not violate the Maryland Public Information Act.

“The government has consented to allow the news agency to see all documents relating to the event with the sole exception of the decedent’s name,” the opinion reads. “The police department has communicated this to the news agency and has further stated with specificity the enumerated exception to disclosure, namely that disclosure would be considered an unwarranted invasion of privacy. Therefore, the police department has met its burden under the MPIA Section 4-351 [Maryland Public Information Act].”

On June 13, a 17-year-old male from Parkville, Md. drowned in the ocean at 92nd Street, marking the second time in less than two weeks a teen visiting the resort was lost in the sea. The Ocean City Police Department did not release the victim’s name, citing a request for privacy from the teen’s family. Most local media outlets, including The Dispatch, did not pursue the issue any further, respecting the family’s wishes and deciding instead releasing the victim’s name would not serve any public purpose or contribute to the newsworthiness of the story.

Following the incident, The Daily Times and its parent Gannett Company Inc. submitted a Public Information Act request to the OCPD seeking the victim’s name. It was denied by the department, which stood behind the wishes of the family not to release the information. The Daily Times and Gannett then filed a second PIA request asking the resort to point out where in the law a special exception based on privacy was included.
Rebuffed again, The Daily Times in September filed suit in Worcester County Circuit Court against the Mayor and Council and the police department seeking to force the resort to release the victim’s name. By that point, the media outlet’s quest became less about the release of the individual drowning victim’s name and more about the town’s ability to pick and choose what information it chooses to release or withhold.

Groton’s opinion on Wednesday cited the prior U.S. Supreme Court’s ruling on a similar case and points out there is no real public benefit to be gained from releasing the victim’s name.

“The request seeks no information about a governmental agency, and it would provide no further understanding or insight into the conduct and procedures of the investigation,” the opinion reads. “The request only seeks the name of the decedent, a private citizen. The request is an unwarranted invasion of privacy under the definition established.”

The Maryland Public Information Act spells out seven exceptions under which information about a private citizen can be protected.

Ocean City Solicitor Guy Ayres said yesterday the Maryland Public Information Act’s statement of purpose is clear in the scope of the type of information to which the public is privy.

“People could have access to the affairs of their government and the acts of its agents,” he said. “Nowhere in the statement of purpose does it say anything about private information about private people.”

Ayres said from the beginning, the town was forthright with the information on the incident and only withheld the victim’s name at the request of the family, which is one of the exceptions clearly spelled out in the MPIA.

“We offered to give them the entire report with the victim’s name redacted, but they didn’t want the report,” he said. “They only wanted the name.”

While Groton’s ruling appears definitive, it does not exactly bring closure to the case. The judge’s opinion merely pertains to the motion for summary judgment and the case is still slated for trial in April. However, both sides have presented their cases and it appears unlikely the judge would reverse the stance outlined this week. However, the plaintiffs could still appeal, if and when the judge’s ruling is made final.

“Right now, this is only a denial of summary judgment,” said Ayres. “This could still come to trial, but my sense is when things settle down, there might be a stipulation to make this ruling final. I personally don’t see any need to go forward. I can’t think of anything else that needs to be said.”