Governor, Assembly leaders agree on anti-terrorism bills

Package would allow broader investigation

ACLU has `concerns'

January 23, 2002|By Tim Craig | Tim Craig,SUN STAFF

In a move that could spark debate over civil liberties, the governor and legislative leaders have agreed on a package of anti-terrorism bills that would give authorities more leeway to tap criminal suspects' telephones, suppress some public records and quarantine people in a biological attack.

The legislation, prompted by the terrorist attacks Sept. 11, also would create a state security council, broaden the governor's emergency powers and establish stiffer penalties for fraud and identity theft.

Gov. Parris N. Glendening said yesterday that the nine-bill package was based on recommendations from an anti-terrorism task force he convened three months ago. The package is supported by Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller and House Speaker Casper R. Taylor Jr.

"My fear was that everyone would just be dropping bills in that could erode civil liberties," Glendening said, adding the package does "not infringe on civil liberties."

But David Rocah, a staff attorney for the American Civil Liberties Union of Maryland, said he is not convinced that civil liberties are safeguarded and vowed to review the bills carefully. "There are obvious potential concerns," he said.

Rocah said he is most concerned about proposals to expand the use of wiretaps and to broaden the power of the state health secretary to quarantine people during a chemical or biological attack. People would be confined to their homes or neighborhoods in an effort to limit the number of victims.

The wiretap proposal would add suspicion of terrorism, harboring a terrorist, identity fraud and money laundering to offenses for which police can monitor a suspect's telephone conversations.

The change would permit prosecutors to seek a judge's approval for so-called roving wiretaps, permitting police to monitor whatever phone a suspect is using. Prosecutors now must apply for a separate court order each time a suspect switches telephones or travels to another city or county.

Baltimore State's Attorney Patricia C. Jessamy has been pushing for roving taps for several years to help her office prosecute major drug cases. Jessamy contends that the state's wiretapping laws need to be updated to adjust to the widespread use of cell phones. Drug dealers often switch cell phones as an evasion tactic.

Glendening spokesman Michael Morrill said the wiretap proposal was included in the terrorism package because terrorists, like drug dealers, are involved in "organized criminal behavior."

Rocah said expanded wiretaps have "nothing to do with terrorism" and called the listening devices an "incredibly invasive tool."

The proposals for responding to a chemical or biological attack would clarify the governor's authority to declare a catastrophic health emergency. If an emergency was declared, the health secretary could quarantine people if they were exposed to a deadly communicable disease. Morrill said such authority would be used sparingly and only as a last resort. But Rocah said the bill "raises potential civil liberties concerns."

Del. Joseph F. Vallario Jr., chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, said legislators would safeguard civil liberties.

"We are going to do our best to make sure the bill protects the liberties of our state, but protects the public," said the Prince George's County Democrat.

The package, some of which was introduced Monday night with the rest expected by next week, also restricts access to public records involving a state agency's security plans.

Glendening invited the news media and other groups to work with his administration if they have problems with the bills.

A new 15-member security council, made up of top government leaders and private citizens, has been proposed as part of the package. The council would review the state's emergency plans.

The package includes a bill that would give National Guard troops called up by the governor the same civil protections as those called up by the president.

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