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Bill eliminates subjectivity around threats of mass violence

Sen. Susan C. Lee, D-Montgomery, is the sponsor of a measure would require the prosecution of anyone who made threats that would — if carried out — immediately put five or more people in substantial risk of their safety. (File photo)

Sen. Susan C. Lee, D-Montgomery, is the sponsor of a measure that would require the prosecution of anyone who made threats of mass violence that would, if carried out, immediately put five or more people at substantial risk of their safety. (File photo)

ANNAPOLIS — Emergency legislation that would streamline penalties for those convicted of threats of mass violence — brought about by an increase in threats of mass shootings made in recent years — has passed the Maryland Senate and is advancing in the State House.

The new legislation, which would simplify the state’s ability to prosecute perpetrators threatening to commit an act of mass violence, was prompted by attacks like the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School shooting in Florida last year and threats such as those made to the University of Maryland, College Park in 2012.

Regardless of whether it is carried out, a threat to commit a crime of violence is prosecuted under the state’s current criminal law only if five or more people are in reasonable fear for their safety, and if a threat caused them to evacuate, move to or remain in a “dwelling, storehouse or public place.”

“As prosecutors, we have to identify the five people (and) confirm they were in reasonable fear, which means the police have to do that investigation,” Andrew Rappaport, state’s attorney for Calvert County, said during a Senate bill hearing on Feb. 7. “With social media, which is the vehicle for many of these threats, it is difficult to identify the five specific people.”

Senate Bill 139, cross-filed with House Bill 420, would eliminate the need to investigate a threat’s potential danger but would require the prosecution of anyone who made threats that would, if carried out, immediately put five or more people in substantial risk of their safety, said bill sponsor Sen. Susan Lee, D-Montgomery.

The Senate passed its bill last month and sent it to the House for review. The House version of the bill advanced after a vote on the chamber floor Thursday.

Under current law, those convicted of threatening to commit an act of violence are guilty of a misdemeanor and subject to 10 years in prison with a fine of up to $10,000.

This bill would not alter the penalty for the crime, just the circumstances under which someone can be convicted of it.

“Would I like it to be a felony? Yes. (Do) I think it could be passed as a felony? No,” said Maryland State’s Attorneys’ Coordinator Steve Kroll during a House bill hearing on Feb. 19. “This is one bill I’ll say I’ll take a misdemeanor happily.”

The bill would redefine the elements of a mass violence threat to be more in line with components of an arson threat, according to Lee.

Lee emphasized that while both crimes have a 10-year misdemeanor penalty, only a threat of mass violence requires a subjective proof-of-fear element, which makes it difficult for officials to prosecute.

“If I say I am going to set off a pipe bomb at a school, I could be charged with threat of arson,” Rappaport said. “But if I say that I am going to shoot up the school, there is no charge as it currently sits.”

As the law currently stands, Rappaport said, his example of a threat does not immediately identify five or more people at potential risk, so he would not be charged with making a threat of mass violence.

Within the month that followed the shooting in Parkland, Florida, last February, U.S. schools experienced an average of 59.4 threats and incidents of violence per school day.

This is a 300 percent increase from the average before the shooting, according to a report by The Educator’s School Safety Network.

The report notes that threats were delivered via social media 45.6 percent of the time following the Parkland incident.

In 2012, a student at the University of Maryland, College Park made an online threat of mass violence directed toward the school and students, Lee said during the hearing.

Lee acknowledged that this incident brought forth the legislation since only a few students saw the messages online at the time, making it difficult to prosecute fully under current law.

The student pleaded guilty to two out of eight charges, including disturbing a school and telephone misuse, according to a Maryland Judiciary Case Search report.

The bill was introduced and passed in the Senate during the 2018 regular session, but it was too late in the session for it to go through the House, said House bill sponsor Del. Charles Sydnor, D-Baltimore County.

The legislation was introduced as an emergency bill this session, which means it would go into effect immediately if it passes the House and Senate.