Anti-spying bills unveiled

House and Senate proposals seek to leash police surveillance

January 23, 2009|By Julie Bykowicz | Julie Bykowicz,

Lawmakers who want to prohibit the Maryland State Police from spying on peaceful groups and keeping files on their members announced yesterday the first legislative response to a "misguided" surveillance operation revealed last summer.

The proposal would require police to have "reasonable suspicion" of criminal activity before using covert tactics to investigate political activists. It also would ban the state from keeping files and dossiers on activists unless the information is part of a criminal investigation.

Gov. Martin O'Malley, a Democrat, said he will propose similar legislation, but the lawmakers who drafted the bill unveiled yesterday say theirs will be more expansive. The American Civil Liberties Union supports the legislators' plan.

The ACLU of Maryland, which sued state police to obtain information about the surveillance operation, said more than 50 individuals were improperly labeled as involved in "terrorism" activities. Additional spying targets continue to come forward. Dan Furmansky, former director of Equality Maryland, a gay and transgender advocacy group, said yesterday that he learned only weeks ago that state police have a photo of him on file and compiled information on his "suspicious" organization.

State troopers also went undercover to infiltrate anti-death penalty and anti-war groups.

Sen. Jamie Raskin, a Montgomery County Democrat and lead sponsor of the Senate anti-spying bill, called the police tactics "Orwellian" and said he and other lawmakers wanted to send a strong message to the police that Maryland will not tolerate violations of constitutional rights.

The operation began in 2005 and lasted about 14 months under former Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr., a Republican, and his state police superintendent, Col. Thomas E. "Tim" Hutchins. Ehrlich has said he knew nothing about the tactics.

At O'Malley's request, former Maryland Attorney General Stephen H. Sachs investigated the operation and concluded in a 93-page report that it was "misguided" and dismissive of civil rights.

Lawmakers said they intend to use legislative hearings to ferret out more information about the extent - and intent - of the surveillance operation. Del. Samuel I. Rosenberg, a Baltimore Democrat, said the state police have been "lawyerly" so far in responding to questions about the operation and he would like to learn more.

Other groups named in police documents provided to the ACLU were People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, Amnesty International, a group fighting BGE utility bill increases and the DC Anti-War Network. Several of the activists monitored by state police were in Annapolis yesterday to support the legislators' efforts.

Del. Sheila E. Hixson, a Montgomery County Democrat and lead sponsor of the House anti-spying bill, said it is clear to her, based on the liberal-leaning groups that were monitored, that someone in the Ehrlich administration ordered the state police to spy.

"State police get their orders from the executive department," she said. "They don't just decide on their own to spy on a group because they have nothing else to do."

Col. Terrence B. Sheridan, the current police superintendent, has called the operation "disconcerting" and said similar activities have not occurred under his watch. State police said they began the operation out of concern about the possibility of violent protests around two planned executions in 2005, although no evidence of potential violence emerged.

O'Malley's legislation could be introduced Monday and is expected to codify Sachs' recommendations.

Sachs suggested that police be able to show reasonable suspicion of criminal activity before launching covert tactics, but he did not say the agency should stop keeping files on activists. That could be a key difference between the two anti-spying bills.

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