Blythe v. State

Decision Date01 April 2005
Docket NumberNo. 0283,0283
Citation870 A.2d 1246,161 Md. App. 492
PartiesVictor BLYTHE, Jr. v. STATE of Maryland.
CourtCourt of Special Appeals of Maryland

Victor Blythe, Jr. (Pro Se litigant), Jessup, MD, for Appellant.

Steven M. Sullivan (J. Joseph Curran, Jr., Atty. Gen., on the brief), Baltimore, MD, for Appellee.

Panel: HOLLANDER, SHARER, and CHARLES E. MOYLAN, JR. (Retired, Specially Assigned), JJ.

CHARLES E. MOYLAN, JR., Judge (Retired, Specially Assigned).

As is frequently the plight of pro-se litigation, this case is a procedural mess. It may, however, with a touch of kindly forbearance, be salvageable.

An Application for MPIA Disclosure

The appellant, Victor Blythe, Jr., on August 20, 2002, filed suit in the Circuit Court for Harford County, asking that, under the provisions of the Maryland Public Information Act (MPIA), the Harford County Police Department be required to turn over to him for his inspection the file from his earlier prosecution for homicide. On February 27, 2004, a hearing was held, at the end of which the motion to compel the disclosure of the file was denied. This appeal, with a few inconsequential bumps and corrections of course, is from that denial.

The file in issue was that of a seven-year-old homicide case against the appellant. That case was closed at the nisi prius level on August 15, 1997, when a Harford County jury convicted the appellant of two counts of first-degree murder, two counts of armed robbery, two counts of kidnapping, and a single count of conspiracy to commit murder. He was sentenced to two consecutive sentences of life imprisonment without the possibility of parole. On October 6, 1998, this Court affirmed the convictions in an unreported decision. The Court of Appeals on December 24, 1998, denied the petition for a writ of certiorari. At that point, the criminal case against the appellant had been finally concluded. The significance of that closure will be a major factor in our subsequent analysis.

The Application Denied

In July of 2000, the appellant first sought to have the Harford County police (or Sheriff's Department or State's Attorney's Office) furnish him with a copy of the file. On July 14, he was notified by the County Attorney's Office that his request was being denied. The letter from the Assistant County Attorney simply recited, without any supporting detail, the statutory laundry list of possible reasons for a denial:

The requested information is exempt from disclosure pursuant to Section 10-618(f)(2) of the State Government Article of the Annotated Code of Maryland and the subsections contained therein. Specifically, disclosure of this information would interfere with a valid and proper law enforcement proceeding; constitute an unwarranted invasion of personal property; disclose the identity of confidential sources; disclose investigative techniques and procedures; prejudice an investigation; and, endanger the life or physical safety of individuals.
In addition, any contemplated use of these materials in post-conviction proceedings would be precluded by Faulk v. State's Attorney for Harford County, et al., 299 Md. 493, 474 A.2d 880 (1984). Specifically, whenever a defendant in a pending criminal proceeding seeks access to investigatory police reports, the Maryland Public Information Act does not require the disclosure of said investigatory police reports.

(Emphasis supplied).

On August 9, the appellant wrote back to the County Attorney's Office, seeking "administrative review" of the July 14 denial of his request for the file. The Assistant County Attorney wrote back to the appellant on August 16, acknowledging the request for a review of the denial.

I am in receipt of your letter dated August 9, 2000. Your letter seeks administrative review in accordance with Section 10-622 of the State Government Article of the Annotated Code of Maryland.

The County Attorney's Office responded by erecting a legal stone wall that is daunting enough for us to interpret and must have completely overawed a pro-se inmate of the House of Correction.

[T]he Sheriff of Harford County, the custodian of these records, is not a unit subject to Subtitle 2 of Title 10 in accordance with Section 10-622(b). Section 10-203(a)(4) specifically excludes an officer or unit not part of a principal department of state government that is created by or pursuant to the Maryland Constitution, operates in only one county and is funded wholly or partly from local funds. See also, Rucker v. Harford County, 316 Md. 275, 558 A.2d 399 (1989). Because the Sheriff is not a unit subject to Subtitle 2 of Title 10 of the Annotated Code of Maryland, administrative review pursuant to Section 10-622 of the State Government Article is not available.

There was no further action in the case until the appellant, on August 20, 2002, filed in the Circuit Court a Motion for a Court Order Compelling MPIA Compliance. The court conducted a hearing on the appellant's motion on February 27, 2004. The motion was denied and this appeal followed.

The Procedural Glitches

The appellee cites four reasons why the trial court's denial of the appellant's motion should be affirmed. The fourth is based upon the actual merits of the MPIA. The other three concern alleged procedural inadequacies of the appellant's case. The appellee argues that the trial court, rather than addressing the merits, should simply have dismissed the case as mistitled and misfiled. In its brief, the appellee refers, less than charitably, to the procedural lapses.

The circuit court appropriately denied Blythe's motion to compel compliance with the MPIA, given [(1)] his failure to comply with the statutory procedure for judicial review, [(2)] his failure to provide notice to the county agency that denied his MPIA request, [and (3)] his failure to pursue judicial review within the applicable two-year limitations period set forth in Md.Code Ann., Cts. & Jud. Proc. § 5-110.

The trial court, however, chose to reach the merits. So shall we. In the last analysis, the procedural sins were venial, not mortal.

A. "A Rose By Any Other Name . . ."

As the appellee quite correctly points out, the judicial review available pursuant to § 10-623(a) is by way of an original civil action. Section 10-623(a) provides, in pertinent part:

Whenever a person . . . is denied inspection of a public record, the person . . . may file a complaint with the circuit court for the county where:
. . . .
(2) the public record is located.

The appellant, laboring under the misapprehension that this case was but the latest chapter in the saga that had begun with his arrest in 1996, styled the action as "State of Maryland v. Victor Junior Blythe, Case Number 12-K-96-000348 IN." That was the original number of the criminal case filed on "04/23/1996" with its then current status then listed as "Closed/Inactive." The MPIA case now before us is, indeed, inaptly named. Is the mislabeling, however, such stuff as ultimate dismissal should be made of? An Order of this Court, filed on June 9, 2004, directing that the circuit court's judgment be formally entered and docketed, recognized the misnomer but had no difficulty in allowing the case to go forward:

On August 22, 2002, the Circuit Court for Harford County received appellant's "Motion for a Court Order Compelling MPIA Compliance," challenging Harford County's denial on July 14, 2000, of appellant's Public Information act request. The action, though civil, was docketed in the instant criminal case where appellant was convicted of murder on October 21, 1997. For purposes of this Order, the aforesaid motion will be assumed to be a duly commenced civil action.

(Emphasis supplied).

Another provision of that same Order indicated that, notwithstanding the inappropriate styling, the case was alive and well as it approached appellate review before us.

ORDERED that the record on appeal will remain in this Court and, subject to further Order of this Court, the briefing and argument schedule in this matter shall not be affected by this Order.

(Emphasis supplied).

Neither was the circuit court deterred by the name of the case from reaching its merits.1 But for the name, what is now before us as the case of Blythe v. State is indistinguishable from what would be before us had the case been named Blythe v. State's Attorney for Harford County. See, e.g., Faulk v. State's Attorney for Harford County, 299 Md. 493, 474 A.2d 880 (1984). We are not for a moment condoning slipshod labeling practices but, realistically, in terms of the extreme sanction sought by the appellee, we must conclude, with Juliet, "What's in a name?"

B. Were the Proper Defendants Actually Left Without Notice?

The appellee's second attack on the appellant's pleading skills is scathing in its cataloging of the appellant's many procedural shortcomings:

As pertinent Maryland Rules further require, upon the filing of such a complaint for judicial review, a summons and complaint must be served upon the defendant agency or custodian of records that denied the MPIA request. See Md. Rule 2-111(b) (plaintiff's obligations preliminary to issuance of summons); Md. Rule 2-112(a) (process — issuance of summons); Md. Rule 2-114 (process — content); Md. Rule 2-121 (process — service in personam).
Here, it is undisputed that Blythe did not file a complaint seeking judicial review in accordance with the requirement of § 10-623(a), and that summons and complaint were not served upon Harford County or its police department, which was the agency that denied Blythe's MPIA request. Nor is there any indication in the record that Blythe provided Harford County or its police department with notice of the Motion to Compel MPIA Compliance filed in the criminal case. Under these circumstances, the proceedings below did not even include the proper defendant in an action for judicial review under § 10-623, which is the agency that denied the MPIA request. Only the State and Blythe are pa
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