Bill seeks to withhold tax refunds of Arundel residents wanted on warrants

One-year pilot program could be prelude to statewide legislation

February 28, 2011|By Andrea F. Siegel, The Baltimore Sun

A bill being considered by the state legislature would prevent Anne Arundel County residents wanted on outstanding warrants from receiving a state tax refund. Supporters of the proposal, who include the state comptroller's office as well as law enforcement officials, hope to later extend the idea to the rest of the state.

"The idea is to use this as an enticement," Anne Arundel County Sheriff Ronald S. Bateman said in a Friday morning news briefing before the county's delegation began its weekly meeting. "We are hoping that the power of greed will lure people in."

The proposal, he said, seeks to give people an incentive to surrender on unserved warrants for unresolved traffic and criminal cases. A person who is owed a state refund would receive a letter explaining why it was not sent. Once the warrant is served or cleared up, the refund would be sent.

If passed, the law would create a one-year pilot program. If successful, its proponents would return to the General Assembly with a bill to take the program statewide, said Len N. Foxwell, chief of staff for Comptroller Peter Franchot.

Foxwell said the cost of administering the program would be negligible, while Bateman said it has the potential to save his office money and manpower.

"If they want their money, they will come to us, as opposed to us chasing them around," he said.

Bateman, a Democrat, had approached the comptroller's office and Del. Steven R. Schuh, the assistant minority whip, leading to a measure that has the bipartisan sponsorship of two delegates from the county, Schuh, a Republican, and Mary Ann Love, a Democrat. Sen. John C. Astle, a Democrat, is sponsoring the Senate version.

"The idea is to reduce the number of warrants, and it provides help in public safety," Schuh said.

Bateman said he did not know how many Anne Arundel County residents might be affected, but guessed that it could be "a couple of hundred."

In 2009, he noted, more than 195,000 Anne Arundel County residents received tax refunds. His office has 8,410 outstanding warrants – about 80 percent of which are for misdemeanors — down about 38 percent from the 13,584 it had about four years ago.

The county's delegation delayed voting on whether to back the bill until legislators receive a letter on its legality from the attorney general's office. No committee hearing dates have been scheduled.

The state police chiefs and sheriffs associations support the measure, but others question it.

"We have concerns with this bill because it assumes that an individual has knowledge that there is an outstanding warrant against them and is evading it, which is not always the case. Additionally, most of those with criminal warrants against them are lower income people who probably do not even have a tax refund coming to them," Melissa Goemann, legislative director for the American Civil Liberties Union of Maryland, wrote in an e-mail.

"The bill is a punitive measure against people who have not yet been found guilty of anything and who might not even be aware they have a warrant out against them," Goemann said.

Massachusetts has a similar law. Also, Maryland already withholds tax refunds for some people. For example, the comptroller's office intercepts refunds for people who owe child support, Foxwell said.

Bateman said that after 31 days and failed attempts at serving a warrant, his office notifies the Motor Vehicle Administration. MVA then informs such motorists that they have 15 days to clear up the matter or their driver's licenses will be suspended and registrations flagged.

Bateman said about 60 Arundel residents a year respond to the warning from the MVA.

andrea.siegel@baltsun.com

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