ANNAPOLIS – Legislation to enable people targeted by false police calls to sue the callers for damages drew praise Friday as a way to protect minorities from those who irrationally believe they are all criminals. The bill also drew concern that victims of and witnesses to domestic violence would be discouraged from calling law enforcement lest they be sued.
Under Senate Bill 436, people who report a disturbance to the police with the intent of having the person reported feel harassed, humiliated or embarrassed or of causing damage to the person’s reputation could be ordered by a court to pay damages. The award would be $10,000 or more depending on the targeted person’s economic and non-economic injuries, such as emotional distress.
“This bill is important because it would authorize a citizen to bring civil action for damages against another person who knowing calls the police with the intent to infringe on someone’s civil liberties,” Sen. Cory V. McCray, the bill’s chief sponsor, told the Senate Judicial Proceedings Committee. “The purpose of the bill would be to discourage racially biased 911 calls where the police are weaponized against people of color.”
McCray cited instances in California, Michigan, Missouri and Oregon of black people being stopped by police who had been called by individuals who saw the people performing benign tasks such as cashing a check, barbecuing in a park and campaigning for office. Victims of these unreasonable police calls should have a right to seek compensation from the caller, said McCray, D-Baltimore city.
Attorney Jo Saint-George, a Silver Spring community activist, told the Senate committee that “there has to be a price” when a person calls the police based on an irrational prejudice or simply to humiliate an individual.
“We need to take a proactive step,” Saint-George said. “There needs to be accountability.”
The bill’s goal of protecting people from false police reports drew support from the Women’s Law Center of Maryland and the House of Ruth, which assist and represent domestic violence victims.
However, both organizations expressed concern that the bill could discourage victims – and witnesses of violence – from notifying police for fear of being sued by the alleged attacker if a charge is not brought.
“Perhaps the victim decides not to implicate the abuser, and does not pursue either a civil protective order or criminal charges against their abuser,” the Women’s Law Center stated in written testimony to the Senate committee.
“The abuser might then seek to sue the neighbor for damages,” the center added. “We see, often enough, abusers suing their victims in tort, so this is a very real possible unintended consequence of this bill. We hope there is a way to protect callers in these cases.”
The House of Ruth agreed, stating in its written testimony that the bill should be amended to exclude from liability the people it serves: victims of domestic violence.
Sen. Chris West, R-Baltimore County and a committee member, expressed concern that the bill’s potential liability for those who call police could discourage people from heeding law enforcement’s oft-repeated message that if you see something suspicious, say something.
Saint-George, the community activist, responded that individuals who reasonably believe or fear a crime is afoot cannot be held liable under the measure, which would target only those who have no proper basis for calling the police.
An identical bill has been introduced in the House of Delegates. Del. Nick Charles, D-Prince George’s, is the chief sponsor of House Bill 1115.