Maryland legislators will seek to beef up laws prohibiting online harassment, enhancing gun control, protecting Marylanders from cellphone tracking and preventing what some view as debtor’s prisons during the upcoming General Assembly session.
The legislation is borne of the mental anguish of bullied youngsters, deadly violence at a Las Vegas concert, a pending Supreme Court decision and indigent people being jailed for failing to show up in district court in civil matters.
Sen. Robert A. “Bobby” Zirkin, who chairs the Judicial Proceedings Committee, said he intends to lead the charge against cyberbullying.
He said he hopes to expand a 2013 law that makes to engaging in a continuous course of bullying conduct online a crime punishable by up to a year in jail and a $500 fine. Zirkin said the law is “too narrow” insofar as online abuse does not require the perpetrator to send a deliberately hurtful message “multiple times to have multiple effects.”
Zirkin will seek an amendment to outlaw a one-time online bullying incident conducted with the perpetrator’s knowledge the single post will likely be “liked,” “shared” or otherwise posted multiple times.
Cyberbullying is “a growing problem and we are going to be tackling it,” said Zirkin, D-Baltimore County. “We are talking about the victimization of children online.”
Zirkin’s planned expansion comes amid instances of tweens and teenagers committing suicide due to barrages of online abuse from classmates that are neither the isolated incidents nor the limited “whisper campaigns” that afflicted youngsters before the digital age. Online abuse spreads rapidly and cannot be truly deleted, Zirkin added.
The senator noted that the 2013 statute is known as “Grace’s Law,” in memory of Grace McComas, a Howard County 15-year-old who killed herself on Easter Sunday in 2012 after repeated bullying on social-media sites.
Del. David Moon, D-Montgomery, said he intends to introduce legislation during the 90-day session to ban “bump stocks,” which can be attached to firearms to enable them to operate like automatic weapons. The deadly accessory was found on firearms Stephen Paddock used to kill 58 people at a country music concert Oct. 1 in Las Vegas before taking his own life.
A federal appeals court decision from February stemming from a Maryland case provides a legal defense to the argument the legislation would encroach on the constitutional Second Amendment right to keep and bear arms, Moon said. The 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, in Kolbe v. Hogan, No. 14-1945, held the constitutional right does not apply to weapons “most useful in military service.” Banning bump stocks, then, is “a very clear extension” of the ruling and “clearly a legal option that we have in Maryland,” Moon said.
Moon, who serves on the House Judiciary Committee, also said he plans to introduce legislation requiring police to get a search warrant in order to examine the cellphone tower records of criminal suspects to determine where they were before, during and after the crime was committed. Currently, police can get the records with a mere subpoena, which lacks the probable-cause requirement of a warrant.
Opposing a warrant requirement “requires some measure of trust in law enforcement’s ability to restrain itself,” Moon said. “[But] there is a very warranted measure of distrust.”
He noted the Maryland State Police acknowledged in 2008 that it had spied on peace and anti-death-penalty groups in 2005 and 2006.
“It’s entirely reasonable” to require that police have probable cause, he added.
The General Assembly, however, might delay action on the legislation until the Supreme Court rules in a case addressing the issue of whether police need a warrant for cellphone tower records under the Fourth Amendment, Moon said, citing the legislature’s common practice of holding bills in abeyance when a court decision is pending.
The Supreme Court heard arguments Nov. 29 in the case, Timothy Carpenter v United States. The justices might not reach a decision by the end of the General Assembly session in April, which would increase the likelihood the legislature will not act on the bill this year.
The 4th Circuit, in a similar case originating from Maryland, held in a reported May 2016 opinion police do not need a search warrant. Upholding the convictions of two Baltimore bank robbers, the full appellate panel said individuals have no reasonable expectation of privacy in the business records kept by third-party cellphone service companies. Both men have appealed to and are seeking review by the Supreme Court.
Moon, a staunch opponent of bail due to what critics call its disparate impact on indigent defendants, said the issue of requiring some defendants to remain in jail if they cannot post bond pre-trial will not be a significant one before the General Assembly in 2018 as it was in 2017.
The legislature will likely not disturb the Maryland Judiciary’s six-month-old rule calling on district court commissioners and judges to prefer alternatives to bail when imposing conditions of release on defendants to ensure their appearance at trial, Moon said. The rule calls on judicial officers to first consider alternatives to bail, such as requiring released defendants to wear ankle bracelets with homing devices or meet frequently with court officers.
“We had a big fight last session” over bail reform, Moon said, adding that legislators will now examine how to extend services that provide pretrial treatment and counseling for defendants into more counties.
In the civil-detention setting, Sen. William C. Smith said he will introduce legislation to sharply reduce the incidents of indigent people being placed in jail under judicial bench warrants for failing to show up in court for claims they failed to pay a bill.
Often, the person – perhaps transient or even homeless – does not receive notice of the court date because notification was sent to a last known address where they have not lived in years. The judge then issues a bench warrant and the person is arrested under what is called a “body attachment.”
These missed court dates would be avoided if the person were required to be served with actual notice and handed the notification he or she is due in court, said Smith, who serves on the Senate Judicial Proceedings Committee.
In many cases, the amount owed is less than $500, he added.
“Most of the people who have body attachments for these small amounts of money are poor,” said Smith, D-Montgomery.
Jailing people for failing to show up for court creates a “de facto debtor’s prison,” he added. “That’s the situation that they find themselves in.”