Security, rights clash in bills

Assembly wrestles with restrictions in terrorism's wake

March 27, 2002|By Sarah Koenig | Sarah Koenig,SUN STAFF

Most state lawmakers say this era of uncertainty compels them to gird against another terrorist attack.

But deciding how to do that without inviting Big Brother into Maryland is proving a difficult balance for the General Assembly to strike.

The debate has forced legislators to examine how many restrictions on individual rights they are willing to abide in the name of security and intelligence.

"This is all new ground that we're on," said House Speaker Casper R. Taylor Jr. "To the extent that we change our legal framework as it relates to civil liberties and constitutional rights, I think it requires going slow."

The House of Delegates and Senate agree on some terrorist-inspired bills, and have passed measures that would give the governor broader emergency powers and block citizens' access to certain public records.

But House and Senate versions of the Maryland Security Protection Act, which deals with criminal penalties, reflect deep philosophical differences. The package won't become law unless negotiators craft a compromise.

Both chambers have vastly whittled down the initial bill, which started as a 35-page document covering everything from price-gouging to bail conditions for suspected terrorists.

Both versions would make it easier for the government to wiretap by allowing authorities to eavesdrop on every phone a suspect uses. And both bills would increase the power and jurisdiction of the Maryland Transportation Authority Police.

But the Senate version includes a provision to make it harder for non-U.S. citizens to get a driver's license by requiring them to show a "legal entry document" - something some immigrants here lawfully do not have.

"I feel very strongly about it because transportation is critical to security, and we should be very careful about who we license to drive," said Sen. Walter M. Baker, a Cecil County Democrat and chairman of the Senate Judicial Proceedings Committee.

The House struck the driver's license provision. Delegates, including Taylor, said such a practice smacks of racial profiling and would penalize people who must depend on documents from the Immigration and Naturalization Service, an agency much criticized for inefficiency.

Another important difference is that the Senate version doesn't mention the word terrorism. Senators also excised parts of the bill that would have made it a crime to harbor a terrorist or threaten to commit terrorism.

Baker said the reason is simple: "We couldn't figure out what the crime of terrorism is." Besides, he added, such designations are the stuff of federal law.

But House members say defining that crime - and allowing police to wiretap suspected terrorists - is crucial. "We've never had the word terrorism in our code before," said Del. Joseph F. Vallario Jr., a Prince George's Democrat and chairman of the House Judiciary Committee. "We definitely need these laws on the books."

Similar debates have been playing out in almost every state. Rhode Island is weighing a bill to make aiding or abetting a terrorist a capital crime, while Arizona has passed a law granting condominium association residents the right to display the American flag.

And, after citizens and the American Civil Liberties Union protested, Washington state lawmakers rejected measures similar to what Maryland is considering.

"Everyone wants to do something," said Cheryl Runyon, an analyst with the National Conference of State Legislatures. "I think many legislators are sort of feeling their way, and trying to get feedback from their constituents about whether they are willing to accept a reduction in their freedoms."

In Annapolis, the debate has forged unexpected alliances.

As Judiciary Committee members argued over whether to make harboring a terrorist a crime, Del. William H. Cole IV, a liberal Baltimore Democrat, said, "What we're doing here is creating a scenario that encourages people to spy on their neighbors. We're infringing on our own civil rights."

Del. Carmen Amedori, a conservative Carroll County Republican, agreed. "I do realize that we're at war, but we can't take the chance that we're curtailing our liberty," she said. "Today, it may be al-Qaida; tomorrow, it may be anti-abortion protesters."

Other lawmakers have found themselves supporting ideas that once offended them.

"Ordinarily, this delegate would say no way," said Del. Dana Lee Dembrow, a Montgomery Democrat who pushed for stronger anti-terrorism measures than the committee ultimately adopted. "Post September 11th, I say, `Screw 'em.' "

But that kind of attitude disturbs some, who say proposals rejected in the past - such as expanded use of wiretaps - are gliding by on skids greased by patriotism and fear, and, perhaps, a looming election.

During House debate this week, Del. Cheryl C. Kagan, a Montgomery County Democrat, said the bill "uses the excuse of the tragedy and horror of September 11th to start, to continue, the weakening of those fundamental rights we cherish as Americans."

Proponents, though, feel strongly that Maryland must react to the terrorist attacks.

Said Baltimore Del. Ann Marie Doory: "None of us know what we're preparing for, but we better be prepared."

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