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Lawmakers hail bills barring cyberbullying, child porn, violence against pregnant women

General Assembly decriminalizes attempted suicide, honors Marshall

Senate Judicial Proceedings Chairman Robert A. ‘Bobby’ Zirkin, D-Baltimore County. (File photo)

Senate Judicial Proceedings Chairman Robert A. ‘Bobby’ Zirkin, D-Baltimore County. (File photo)

ANNAPOLIS – The Maryland General Assembly this year addressed the dangers posed by social media and increasingly realistic computer graphics in passing legislation to expand protections against on-line bullying of youngsters and to prevent child pornography in the digital age.

The legislature, in the 90-day session that ended Monday, also enhanced penalties for violent acts against pregnant women, decriminalized attempted suicide and approved naming the state law library after civil rights icon and Maryland attorney Thurgood Marshall.

Gov. Larry Hogan is expected to sign the five measures into law in the coming weeks.

Senate Judicial Proceedings Committee Chair Robert A. “Bobby” Zirkin, whose panel reviewed all five measures, called the General Assembly’s broadening of the definition of cyberbullying “the biggest bill we passed this year.”

The legislation will outlaw a one-time online bullying incident conducted with the perpetrator’s knowledge that his or her single post would probably be liked, shared or otherwise reposted multiple times. Current law does not criminalize a one-time posting but rather requires a continuing course of online conduct to be illegal, which Zirkin said does not address the cyberspace reality that a single act metastisizes on the social network.

“The act of sending out a vicious post on social media that is designed to torment a child is now illegal,” Zirkin said Tuesday.

“Parents and young people who are being bullied will be able to get peace orders and stop this activity from going on,” added Zirkin, D-Baltimore County. “Schools should be making parents aware of their rights under this.”

The measure, Senate Bill 103, will also increase the punishment for cyberbullying from up to a year in jail and a $500 fine to up to three years in prison and a $10,000 fine.

The legislation, dubbed Grace’s Law 2.0, is named in memory of Grace K. McComas, a 15-year-old Woodbine girl who killed herself on Easter Sunday 2012 after she was called “worthless” online by an older teenager, who also posted vulgar insults and a death threat.

With regard to child pornography, the General Assembly closed what the bill’s sponsors called a potential 21st century loophole in the law to prevent exploitation of youngsters.

While the statute clearly criminalizes the photographing of children for prurient purposes, it was unclear whether a computer-generated image of a child is also covered under the criminal law.

“With all these new technologies, that was a big gap in child pornography law,” Zirkin said.

The General Assembly-passed measure, Senate Bill 736, expressly states that child pornography includes a computer generated image that is “indistinguishable from an actual and identifiable child” and is not a drawing, cartoon, sculpture or painting.

Other measures

In memory of a slain pregnant Olney woman, the General Assembly passed legislation enhancing by up to 10 years the potential prison sentence for someone convicted of committing violence against a woman he or she knows or believes to be pregnant.

The legislation, Senate Bill 561, was spurred by the shooting death in September 2017 of Laura Wallen, a Howard County high school teacher whose unborn son, Reid, also died. Tyler Tessier, Wallen’s boyfriend and Reid’s father, was facing trial for first-degree murder in her killing when he hanged himself in a prison cell last September.

Sen. Justin Ready (File The Daily Record / Bryan P. Sears)

Sen. Justin Ready (File The Daily Record / Bryan P. Sears)

Sen. Justin Ready, chief sponsor of the bill dubbed Laura and Reid’s Law, called violence against a pregnant woman “a heinous act” deserving of an increased prison sentence.

“We should send a clear message it will not be tolerated,” Ready, R-Carroll, said Tuesday. “A woman who is carrying a child should be protected.”

Del. David Moon and Sen. Jeff Waldstreicher, Montgomery County Democrats and chief sponsors of the measure to decriminalize attempted suicide, successfully lobbied their colleagues by telling them that trying to kill yourself is evidence of a mental health problem that needs treatment, not a common-law crime that merits punishment.

“It’s really unclear to me what the prosecutors are getting out of the charge that they couldn’t get under public health service options,” Moon said after the House vote.

Criminalizing assisted suicide is “an antiquated practice,” he added.

The legislation was prompted by the plea-bargained conviction in district court last year of a Caroline County man who tried to kill himself. The man was also charged with reckless endangerment and endangering his safety and that of his brother.

The man was sentenced to a suspended prison term of three years and two years of probation for attempting suicide, a crime under English common law that has persisted since colonial times in Maryland. Then-interim Caroline County State’s Attorney Joe Riley told The Baltimore Sun in 2018 that his goal was not to punish the man but to get him into mental health treatment.

In the past five years, 10 people have been charged with attempted suicide statewide, including the Caroline County man, the Maryland Department of Legislative Services said in explanatory papers accompanying House Bill 77 and Senate Bill 395.

The State Law Library’s name change to the Thurgood Marshall Law Library, Senate Bill 594, passed the General Assembly with the support of Maryland’s top jurist.

Court of Appeals Chief Judge Mary Ellen Barbera told legislators that Marshall, the first black U.S. Supreme Court justice, ensured that “the door of justice can and must be open to all.”

Many other bills failed in the General Assembly this session, including measures that would have done the following:

  • lifted the statute of limitations entirely on lawsuits alleging child sexual assault;
  • allowed terminally ill patient to choose suicide with the help of doctors who would be permitted to provide – but not administer – fatal doses of medication;
  • permitted judges to order that child support be paid by mothers or fathers whose parental rights were terminated for having conceived the child through nonconsensual intercourse;
  • created an office within the executive branch to handle mediation of asbestos-exposure lawsuits;
  • established a no fault birth injury fund for medical-malpractice claims;
  • required that criminals sentenced to life in prison in Maryland serve at least 25 years before becoming eligible for parole – more than a decade longer than the current 11-and-a-half-year minimum;
  • stripped Maryland governors of the final say in parole decisions for inmates sentenced to life who have served 30 years in prison;
  • proposed a constitutional amendment to change the Maryland Court of Appeals to the Maryland Supreme Court and turned the court’s “judges” into “justices” and the “chief judge” into “chief justice;”
  • proposed a constitutional amendment to raise the amount in controversy that entitles litigants to a jury trial from more than $15,000 to more than $30,000; and
  • proposed a constitutional amendment to end circuit court elections, leaving to the governor the selection of all judges to those trial courts. The proposal would have subjected the governor’s selections to the advice and consent of the Senate, which is not currently required.

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