In new legislation that banking and law enforcement officials say may be the first of its kind, robbers in Maryland could face stiffer prison sentences if they use a threatening note to carry out their crime.
The General Assembly approved the legislation to penalize note-passing in robberies in a little-noticed act before it adjourned last week. The law applies to robberies carried out anywhere, although it is aimed at curbing bank holdups, which have been on the increase in the state in recent years.
"This is something that's frequently done in bank robberies," said Sen. Robert J. Garagiola, a Montgomery County Democrat. "They pass over a note that says `I have a bomb under my coat' or `I have a gun.' They know the tellers are trained not to resist, and they end up walking away with thousands of dollars."
Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr.'s office is reviewing the legislation, spokesman Henry Fawell said.
Lawmakers took up the issue after prompting from area bankers. The legislators decided to target "note passers" after abandoning a proposal from the state's banking lobby to create harsher penalties for robberies of banks over other establishments.
Some bank security experts, however, believe the compromise may be too narrow to be effective in the long run.
Several states have rewritten criminal statutes to single out bank robbers for tougher sentences than those who knock off other businesses. Bank holdups account for a fraction of robberies nationwide, but more than $70 million is taken from banks every year. About a fifth of the money is recovered, according to the FBI.
Under the Maryland legislation, robbers who declared in writing that they had a "dangerous weapon" could get up to 20 years in prison, whether they have a weapon or not - the same maximum penalty as if they did possess a weapon. Unarmed robbery still carries a sentence of up to 15 years.
Security experts said criminals could alter their tactics to get around the law.
"It's not going to take criminals out there any time at all to figure this out," said William J. Rehder, a consultant and retired FBI bank robbery investigator who spoke last year to the Maryland Association for Bank Security. "They're either going to say to themselves, `I'm not going to mention a gun in this note' or `I'm going to make an oral demand and mention the gun.'"
"I'm surprised this was so half-baked," he said of the legislation.
Lawmakers say they tailored the legislation to win passage during a last-minute flurry of activity in the session in Annapolis. "Time was running out," Garagiola said. "This was the language that was crafted that legislators were comfortable enough to move out of committee."
Del. Michael D. Smigiel Sr., a Cecil County Republican, said legislators were unwilling to wade into a legal morass of what constitutes a verbal threat, which could run the gamut from "I have a gun" to "Somebody's going to get hurt."
"We didn't want to get into the issue of whether or not the robber said the magic words," Smigiel said. "It's hard to dispute the validity of what's in writing."
As it was, the legislation passed both the House of Delegates and the Senate unanimously.
Sue Schenning, deputy state's attorney for Baltimore County, said the law could be a useful tool for prosecutors and it takes into account the perspective of victims, who don't distinguish their level of fear based on whether they saw a gun or were given a note threatening a gun.
"It is very difficult to craft legislation in such a way that it covers all situations," Schenning said. "Does this law encompass every circumstance? No, but it does address probably the most serious instance."
The Massachusetts Legislature also is considering a law against "note passers," although the bill doesn't specify what language in a note would trigger the penalty. It would stipulate a minimum sentence of 30 months for passing a note to a teller and a minimum of five years if a weapon is flashed or threatened.
That law hasn't made it out of committee, although local bankers who back the law don't expect opposition, said Bruce E. Spitzer, a spokesman for the Massachusetts Bankers Association, a trade group.
In Maryland, the number of bank robberies reached nearly 300 in 2004 - 70 percent more than a decade-long low of 175 in 2000. On a per-capita basis, Baltimore and its five surrounding counties last year far outpaced the Los Angeles area, which perennially logs the most bank robberies in total numbers.
The increase can be attributed to several factors, including the Baltimore drug trade that leaves in its wake addicts who steal to feed their habit. Repeat offenders are common. Also, many banks have removed bars in front of tellers - making themselves more inviting to customers, but also to criminals. And escape along highways has become easier as new bank branches have sprouted in growing suburbs.