Bill to help police, prosecution in domestic violence cases pushed in House STATE HOUSE REPORT

March 10, 1995|By Frank Langfitt | Frank Langfitt,Sun Staff Writer

Women legislators in Annapolis yesterday pushed a domestic violence bill that they said would make it easier to arrest and prosecute offenders.

But other legislators at a hearing before the House Judiciary Committee said the bill might limit police officers' discretion in the field and infringe on the privacy rights that married couples enjoy.

Del. Pauline H. Menes, the bill's sponsor, introduced the measure by noting that 91 people died in domestic violence in Maryland last year. She said the bill could help keep others from the same fate.

"One day we'll stand on Lawyers Mall [a plaza in front of the State House] and say there were no deaths in Maryland due to domestic violence," the Prince George's County Democrat said.

The measure, House Bill 140, would authorize police to make an arrest without a warrant based on probable cause that a person had committed abuse. Under current law, officers must have evidence of physical injury to make such an arrest.

To help prosecutors, the bill would allow them to introduce as evidence confidential communications between spouses -- either oral or written. Under current law, private communications between spouses are protected,

Stephen Bailey, an assistant state's attorney in Baltimore County, said such privacy provisions have tied his hands in cases in which he obtained confessions.

Mr. Bailey recalled a case in which a husband beat his wife and threatened to shoot her in the head. Later, the man confessed to the crime in an apology letter to the woman and asked her to perjure herself in court to save him.

The letter apparently worked, Mr. Bailey said. The woman refused to testify and the state was prohibited from using the letter as evidence.

"We are excluding very relevant evidence on a very serious crime," said Mr. Bailey. "What we're asking for is the tools to get to these cases before there is a death."

But members of the Judiciary Committee expressed concern about encroaching on marriage privacy. Committee member Rushern L. Baker III, a Prince George's Democrat and an attorney, pointed out that private communications between spouses are protected nationwide.

Mr. Bailey acknowledged that courts protect marital communications so as not to drive a wedge between couples. "We want spouses to feel comfortable talking to one another," he said.

Other committee members took issue with provisions that they said could limit the discretion of police. One would require that when police make an arrest in a case in which the parties have beaten each other, officers determine who is the primary aggressor and arrest that person.

Del. James M. Harkins questioned the wisdom of legislating how police might handle such murky situations, especially if alcohol is involved. "We don't want the police to be the jury, the judge," said Mr. Harkins, a Harford County Republican.

The bill has 64 sponsors, including at least 10 men. Seventy-one votes are required to pass a bill in the House.

House Speaker Casper R. Taylor Jr., who is listed as one of the bills' co-sponsors, sat in on part of the testimony yesterday.

"From what I've learned about it so far, I think it's a pretty reasonable bill," Mr. Taylor said. But the speaker, who wields great influence over the fate of legislation, declined to predict whether it would pass.

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