House panel eyes safety

Judiciary Committee holds hearing about bills on Md. security

`Urge you to use caution'

Worries about rights of immigrants, businesses raised

March 01, 2002|By David Nitkin | David Nitkin,SUN STAFF

Maryland risks undermining the rights of immigrants and small businesses as it seeks to strengthen security in the aftermath of Sept. 11, state lawmakers were told yesterday.

A package of bills that has the backing of the governor and General Assembly leaders goes too far in its restrictions on such things as driver's licenses and gasoline price increases, critics told the House Judiciary Committee.

"We urge you to use caution when limiting civil liberties for public safety," said Kevin Slatten of the Public Justice Center, an anti-poverty and civil rights organization based in Baltimore.

Maryland is one of dozens of states debating tougher security laws because of last fall's attacks and the war on terrorism. Lawmakers throughout the country are toiling in a vacuum, however, not sure whether their work will be undone by federal policies being developed.

"We've not received any help at all," said Baltimore Mayor Martin O'Malley, testifying on a bill that would, in part, require companies to build fences around cars that are filled with dangerous chemicals and stored in rail yards. "They're moving awfully, awfully slow."

State Attorney General J. Joseph Curran Jr. asked lawmakers to approve the Maryland Security Protection Act of 2002, a proposal that would restrict price-gouging, add new criminal penalties for terrorist acts, ease restrictions on wiretaps, and prevent non-U.S. citizens from getting a driver's license without a valid foreign passport and entry document.

Advocates for immigrants said the driver's license restriction would cause many hard-working state residents to lose their jobs, an argument that fell on sympathetic ears.

"We all understand that this is a country of immigrants," said Beltran Navarro of the Maryland Latino Coalition for Justice. "Many of the family members of people who lost their lives in the tragedy would not be able to get a driver's license under this bill."

Existing state regulations covering licenses for immigrants are strict enough, said Kimberly Propeak, an attorney with CASA of Maryland, a nonprofit legal aid group.

Judiciary Committee Chairman Joseph F. Vallario Jr., a Prince George's Democrat, appeared to agree, saying Maryland should join states that are looking to make it easier for foreign-born residents to drive. "There are people out there trying to earn a living," he said.

Business groups urged the lawmakers to fine-tune the definition of price-gouging. Under the bill, merchants would be barred from raising their prices by more than 15 percent after the governor declared a state of emergency.

Jeff Zellmer of the Maryland Retail Merchants Association said grocery stores could be stuck with special low prices advertised in Sunday circulars if an emergency struck the next day. "There's got to be an amendment drafted that omits that stuff," he said.

O'Malley, who has been active in Washington and Annapolis on behalf of cities since Sept. 11, said he supports a bill that would force chemical companies to better secure chemical-containing tanker cars.

The mayor distributed pictures he said were snapped this week by a city police sergeant who walked unchallenged past entry gates to tanker cars.

"You can walk from the road, put your hand on a 90-ton tanker of chlorine, and nobody will ask you what you're doing," said Del. Robert A. Zirkin of Owings Mills, a Democrat and sponsor of the Chemical Security Act.

A Senate committee considered another security law that would limit public access to certain records. The measure has been altered since its introduction to address concerns that it was too broad.

The new proposal restricts only those records dealing with plans for responding to terrorist attacks, facilities' building blueprints and security protocols, and other security-related issues.

Sun staff writer Tim Craig contributed to this article.

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