As bills fail, city officials fume

Leaders say House Judiciary Committee disrespected them

May 15, 2008|By Melissa Harris | Melissa Harris,Sun reporter

Baltimore's top law enforcement officials accused a key House of Delegates committee yesterday of disrespecting them and killing a slate of bills that they thought would help control crime in the city.

Baltimore State's Attorney Patricia C. Jessamy and top police officials have long grumbled that the House Judiciary Committee is too dominated by defense attorneys, and yesterday those frustrations bubbled to the surface in a meeting of the city's Criminal Justice Coordinating Council.

Police Commissioner Frederick H. Bealefeld III said city officials were "treated pretty rudely" during the most recent legislative session, and City Solicitor George A. Nilson suggested maintaining and sharing a log of House Judiciary Committee members' voting records on bills proposed by law enforcement officials. He also suggested appealing to House Speaker Michael E. Busch to change the committee's makeup.

Bealefeld said that in debating gun control legislation, Judiciary Committee members expressed "lines of reasoning" that were "beyond the absurd."

"Frankly, I thought that by the way we were treated that they thought Baltimore was an island operating separately from the rest of the state," he said.

The committee's chairman, Del. Joseph F. Vallario Jr., a Prince George's County Democrat, could not be reached for comment yesterday. But other members of the committee said the city officials' complaints were overblown.

Del. Luiz R.S. Simmons, a Montgomery County Democrat, said that Mayor Sheila Dixon and Bealefeld took their defeats in the legislature too personally. He said that the failures of gun bills stemmed from geographical differences and the influence of Republicans and conservative Democrats.

"Baltimore obviously has a legitimate agenda, but in many other parts of the state, the embrace of Second Amendment rights is very strong," said Simmons, a criminal defense attorney. "Really, what the city is encountering isn't a personal insult, but a changing balance of power in the state."

Jessamy and Dixon went to Annapolis this year pushing for new legislation to keep people convicted of gun crimes in prison longer and to require anyone who has lost a weapon to report the disappearance to police within three days.

They also returned with proposals that had failed previously, such as a bill to keep rifles and other long-barreled guns out of the hands of felons and domestic abusers.

As city and state officials read aloud their proposals and repeated failures, Jessamy concluded, "We got beat up together."

The city's legislation ran into opposition in the Senate Judicial Proceedings Committee as well, but most of the officials' ire was directed at the House committee yesterday. Afterward, Sterling Clifford, a city spokesman, sought to temper Nilson's and Bealefeld's comments, saying that the city would not profile legislators' voting records and that officials were "blowing off steam."

"No one's going to start profiling people, and everybody knows it," Clifford said.

The frustration this year appears to stem from a shouting match Jessamy and delegates from Cecil County and Western Maryland got into over Dixon's proposal to require people who have lost their guns to report the disappearance.

"A delegate from Western Maryland said, 'We all know that Baltimore City is the murder capital of the United States. Most of this stuff is going on in Baltimore City. Why should we have to be under the same laws in Hagerstown?'" said Del. Curtis S. Anderson, chairman of the Baltimore delegation, who sits on the House Judiciary Committee.

From there, Anderson said the committee hearing erupted with one delegate accusing Jessamy of not being able to enforce the new laws, even if they were passed. Vallario gaveled the meeting to order, Anderson said.

"I definitely agree on the issue of disrespect," Anderson said. "Two delegates were disrespectful to my mayor and my state's attorney. If I had done that to their county executive, I would've expected no less of a response from them."

But Anderson said there were good policy reasons for the failure of each piece of legislation. On gangs, for instance, he pointed out that the General Assembly passed legislation in that area last year that hadn't had a chance to take effect.

"The committee attempts to balance the demands of prosecutors with due process," Simmons said. "Some people believe that the ends are more important than the means, but this committee has to be concerned with process ...It has to try to strike a sensible balance. Unfortunately, there are people not interested in balance."

Busch said yesterday that he had heard no complaints from members of the Judiciary Committee, the Baltimore City delegation or city officials about the outcome of their legislation.

"I know the judiciary gets an inordinate amount of bills that draw, I guess, wide philosophical differences from people that sit on the committee," he said.

"There are four members from Baltimore City on the Judiciary Committee, including the chairman of the Baltimore City delegation. I didn't hear from him that people from Baltimore City were treated in a disrespectful manner."

melissa.harris@baltsun.com

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