Police hail some new laws, scoff at others

Maryland lawmaker toughen stance on gangs, sex offenders, weaken other laws

April 15, 2010|By Peter Hermann, The Baltimore Sun

Keeping violent and repeat sex offenders and gangbangers in prison longer is an easy sell, with the abduction and slaying of 11-year-old Eastern Shore girl and the killing of a Crofton boy still registering outrage.

Police charged a registered sex offender in the killing of the girl, and they said gangs were behind the death of the boy. The notoriety that both cases received help speed the tougher sanctions through the just-concluded General Assembly session in Annapolis.

But police and prosecutors in Baltimore and beyond pushed hard for other new laws and came away with mixed results. Some issues were well-publicized, such as sex crimes and gangs, but others slipped through the crowded agenda with little or no attention.

Here's a summary of a handful of crime-oriented legislation and what happened to it. New laws take effect Oct. 1, and a spokesman for Gov. Martin O'Malley said he has signed or plans to sign all of the public-safety related bills that passed.

• Police unions scored a victory with a bill making formal complaints filed against officers inadmissible in court if the officers were cleared of administrative or criminal charges. Until now, judges had to allow defense attorneys to raise questions about officers' conduct, even if the officers had been exonerated.

•Baltimore's police commissioner and top prosecutor lost a bid to toughen state gun laws by broadening the offense of using a handgun in the commission of a crime to include long guns such as rifles, shotguns and assault weapons (more on the battle over this bill in Sunday's Crime Beat column).

•A bill that would have eased restrictions imposed just last year on how pawnshops and secondhand shops have to record transactions failed. Police waged a public campaign against the measure. Authorities said it would have crippled their ability to monitor the swift sales of stolen goods and make arrests.

•Lawmakers approved a new law allowing police officers to arrest, without warrant, a person the officer has probable cause to believe is in violation of a protective order filed by a spouse in an abuse case. In the past, police had to obtain an arrest warrant before detaining that person.

•Gas station owners in the city will be prohibited from selling fuel to dirt bike riders. Authorities describe this law as practically unenforceable and note that dirt bikes are already illegal on city streets. But the police do like one other provision of the bill that orders gas station owners to post the laws about dirt bikes. Police routinely distribute pamphlets with the same information, so they regard this new requirement as free publicity.

•Lawmakers for the first time voted to impose uniform reporting requirements for scrap metal dealers across the state. Officials in the city and Baltimore County see this as a defeat because the new rules are far less restrictive than what they already have on the books, and the state law trumps the local ordinances.

The new state law, for example, requires dealers to report receiving 500 pounds of cast iron. That might be a leap in holding dealers around Maryland accountable, but it doesn't come close to the city and county rules that require dealers to describe their hauls in more detail.

Police say that helps them distinguish between scrap and stolen items, such as the cast-iron tree gates stolen recently from Baltimore Ridgely's Delight neighborhood, or the stolen lightpoles from a few years ago, or aluminum gutters and catalytic converters routinely ripped from homes and cars.

Don Mohler, a spokesman for the Baltimore County executive, said lawmakers in Annapolis undermined local efforts to go after metal thieves.

"We had really strong controls that we felt were very important to curtail what was clearly a situation that was endangering public safety," Mohler said. "We felt very strongly that the laws on the books in the city and in the county are far superior than what was passed in Annapolis. There's no doubt it is extremely frustrating."

peter.hermann@baltsun.com

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