By Nate Rabner
Capital News Service
ANNAPOLIS — The Maryland General Assembly responded in this year’s legislative session to public concern about police misconduct, drug crime, domestic violence and more.
Freddie Gray’s death Sunday after Baltimore police arrested him April 12 is just the latest in a series of incidents in Maryland and around the nation that have sparked outrage over law enforcement officers’ interactions with citizens.
House Judiciary Committee Vice Chair Kathleen Dumais, D-Montgomery, said more than 400 witnesses came to Annapolis to testify on more than a dozen law enforcement bills.
“It is very concerning, the allegations made by many community members from across the state,” she said.
In response, legislators passed several bills aimed at protecting citizens from police misconduct, though they stopped short of a few measures critics said would exert too much control over law enforcement agencies, such as a bill to amend the Law Enforcement Officers’ Bill of Rights.
Delegate Alonzo Washington, D-Prince George’s, sponsored a successful bill that would require law enforcement agencies in the state to submit a detailed report to the Governor’s Office of Crime Control and Prevention for deaths involving police actions. Gov. Larry Hogan, a Republican, will sign the reporting bill, spokeswoman Erin Montgomery said.
A bill by state Senator Jamie Raskin, D-Montgomery, would alter the controversial practice of civil forfeiture, in which police confiscate money, weapons or other property thought to be associated with illegal drug manufacturing or distribution. If Hogan enacts the bill, the government will have to prove property is “guilty” of being involved in the drug trade, rather than the current system in which the property owner must argue its “innocence” in court.
Proponents argue the bill will prevent police from taking money from recreational marijuana users, though opponents fear that drug dealers would take advantage of the proposed policy to reclaim their property.
Other bills passed by the General Assembly would increase the amount of money a person can receive in damages from a successful civil tort case against the state, a county or a city. Those initiatives were propelled in part by the story of Estela Espina, who received the legal maximum of $400,000 after a Prince George’s County police officer fatally shot her husband; some legislators said she should have been awarded more, citing a jury’s $11.5 million verdict.
Critics say increased liability for local governments, from $200,000 per single claim with a $500,000 maximum per incident to $400,000 and $800,000, respectively, would prompt cities and counties to stop offering certain services for fear of expensive cases.
“We basically undermine the public service” with the tort reform bills, said state Senator Robert Cassilly, R-Harford, during a debate on the Senate floor April 9.
The federal Justice Department announced Tuesday it would investigate the death of Gray, an African-American man, who police say was injured while riding in the back of a police van. Protesters in Baltimore have accused police of racism.
Baltimore Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake, whose administration requested two officer misconduct bills during the legislative session, told CNN’s Anderson Cooper on Tuesday that she is “determined to make sure that we have a full investigation and we follow all of the rules and procedures, so if there is a finding of wrongdoing that we have done everything possible … so we can hold those individuals accountable.”
She also said that “because of our (state) Law Enforcement Officers’ Bill of Rights, we have yet to fully engage those officers” involved with Gray’s death.
Two bills Rawlings-Blake requested died in committee. One would have amended the Law Enforcement Officers’ Bill of Rights to deny hearings to officers convicted of certain misdemeanors. Currently, officers convicted of felonies are denied hearings. The other would have created a felony, misconduct in office, which could land an officer in prison for up to 10 years in addition to any sentence for the misconduct itself.
Legislators agreed more on a bill to allow police to record their activities with wearable cameras; that measure, sponsored by Delegate Charles Sydnor III, D-Baltimore County, passed by a vote of 128-8 in the House of Delegates and 47-0 in the Senate. Hogan will sign the bill and a similar Senate bill, Montgomery said.
Currently, police cannot record audio without the consent of the person being recorded, a legal hangup that has discouraged departments from deploying cameras on officers. Sydnor’s bill would exempt police body cameras from the “two-party consent” rule, similar to an exemption for dashboard cameras in police cruisers.
“I think it’s a good thing for both the police and people on the street,” said Delegate John Cluster Jr., R-Baltimore County, a judiciary committee member and former police officer, who also mentioned a provision in the bill that would instruct the Maryland Police Training Commission to develop a policy for body camera use by the start of 2016.
A bill that would have imposed more specific rules for body camera use died in the House Judiciary Committee. Dumais said the committee did not have enough time to sufficiently analyze it.
“I felt strongly (the consent modification is) all we needed to do this year,” she said.
Expungement and shielding
Throughout the spring, lobbyists and protestors alike flocked to the Assembly’s committee rooms to advocate for leniency for small-time crime, arguing that the criminal justice system is preventing ex-offenders from getting jobs and re-entering society.
A majority of delegates and senators agreed with them, passing the Maryland Second Chance Act to allow Marylanders to shield certain criminal convictions from public scrutiny, such as for driving with a suspended license, disturbing the peace or committing certain drug offenses. Shielded records are visible to police but not to many employers. Another passed bill would allow courts to expunge convictions for crimes that are no longer crimes — particularly for marijuana-related offenses. And a third would repeal mandatory prison sentences for people convicted of certain drug crimes.
Senator Bobby Zirkin, D-Baltimore County, head of the Senate Judicial Proceedings Committee, said the state is shifting from harsh punishments toward restorative justice.
“To have criminal records (for minor, nonviolent offenses) that last for the rest of your life, first of all, I think is unfair, but more importantly doesn’t work when you keep somebody from getting a job or housing or education,” Zirkin said.
“Now it’s about targeting the education and targeting treatment and doing those things which actually work.”
But critics say the measures would help drug dealers and repeat offenders. Cluster said the Second Chance Act started out offering to shield “one crime, one time,” but became too far-reaching.
“What it turned into was you can shield as many records as you can on this bill in one jurisdiction,” Cluster said. “It puts a burden on the business owner because he just can’t check (employees’ criminal records) now.”
Restorative justice and police accountability were dominant themes this session. Zirkin cited the drug policy reforms as a transition away from the “(President Ronald) Reagan kind of war on drugs, tough-on-crime approach to drug use” toward “targeting the education and targeting treatment and doing those things which actually work.”
But some legislators argued that the bills passed will help drug dealers and murderers more than petty criminals.
Cluster said he thought removing mandatory minimum sentences for drug dealers was a “big mistake,” as the threat of tough sentences has helped police persuade small-time dealers to betray kingpins.
“You could use that as a bargaining chip,” Cluster said. “They could get the top gun that way. You’re not going to be able to do that now.”
On the bright said, he said, the Legislature did pass a bill that would add a new penalty for assaulting a police officer, firefighter or other first responder.
“This just gives them a little bit more protection,” Cluster said.
Delegate Pat McDonough, R-Baltimore and Harford counties, issued a letter to colleagues and constituents entitled “The Year of the Criminal,” in which he accused the General Assembly of supporting crime.
“Everything is beneficial to criminals — in particular, drug dealers,” McDonough said.
He mentioned a passed bill that would allow former prison inmates to vote while on parole. McDonough offered a “prank amendment” to the bill that would have allowed felons to vote from prison.
Zirkin dismissed McDonough’s letter as “juvenile.”
“Just to say that you’re doing things quote ‘for criminals’ — it really is … very simplistic,” Zirkin said.
McDonough said he plans to release a documentary to inform the public about the General Assembly’s approach to criminal justice issues.
“They’re not pro-victim; they’re not pro-public safety,” he said. “The general public does not know about this. The media has not covered it to any great extent.”
Other legal changes proposed by 2015 legislation passed by the General Assembly
–Legalization of marijuana paraphernalia and creation of a civil penalty (rather than a more serious misdemeanor charge) for smoking marijuana in public
–Requiring law enforcement agencies to report the progress of rape kit processing to victims
–Expanding domestic violence relief to include dating violence
–No longer requiring that spouses’ separation be voluntary as a grounds for limited divorce
–Increasing certain penalties for drunken driving