Both chambers approve limits on police surveillance of activists

March 28, 2009|By Julie Bykowicz and Laura Smitherman | Julie Bykowicz and Laura Smitherman, and

Maryland police departments must document reasonable suspicion of criminal activity before using covert tactics to investigate political activists, under legislation approved Friday by both chambers of the General Assembly.

After months of controversy over Maryland State Police surveillance of peaceful protest groups, the Senate and House of Delegates unanimously approved separate bills. After slight differences between the two versions are resolved, the legislation is expected to be sent to Gov. Martin O'Malley. A spokeswoman said Friday that he would sign the bill.

Lawmakers crafted the bills in response to the state police program uncovered last summer when the American Civil Liberties Union sued for information about it. The bill, which would also prohibit law enforcement officers from collecting political files on activists not under criminal investigation, applies to all police departments and expands on O'Malley's initial proposal.

The unanimous support "sends a clear message that Maryland doesn't tolerate intrusion into our First Amendment activities and beliefs," said Cindy Boersma, legislative director for the ACLU of Maryland.

Under the discredited state police operation, troopers in the homeland security division disguised their identities to e-mail organizers and attended meetings. Then, using a computer software program that was intended as a way to forward security-threat information to the federal government, the troopers categorized groups and more than 50 individuals as involved in "terrorism."

The legislation would also require the state police to search their database and identify wrongful targets, disclose the information and then purge it. Boersma said there has yet to be a full accounting of the database.

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