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State bill eases prosecution for threats of mass violence

Proposed legislation would tweak 2014 law with higher fines, lower burden of proof
By Greg Ellison | Mar 29, 2018
Source: File Photo

(March 30, 2018) Although actions speak louder than words, threats of mass violence could mean quick prosecution of the perpetrators and large fines and jail time for those found guilty, if a pair of updates to current law pass muster in the General Assembly.

The measures, one in the House of Delegates and another in the Senate, would provide prosecutors more discretion in charging individuals who threaten to commit crimes of violence that place five or more people at risk of serious injury or death.

Sen. Susan Lee (D-Montgomery County), who is sponsoring SB1250, testified before Judicial Proceedings on March 15 and said the bill would update a 2014 law. Penalties for the misdemeanor charge would be increased to a maximum of 10 years in prison and up to a $10,000 fine.

Howard County Deputy State’s Attorney Kim Oldham said the intent is to remove the law’s current requirement there be an “established” effect on a group of people.

“Right now, the way the language reads, not only must there be a threat of mass violence to at least five people, but another element is five people must have been placed in reasonable fear,” she said. “This poses a limitation on law enforcement investigations into threats of mass violence.”

Kathryn Marsh, Calvert County deputy state’s attorney, said two recent mass threat investigations in her jurisdiction were hampered by the requirement to find five people placed in fear.

“Because of how the criminal law … is currently written, law enforcement’s hands are often tied in trying to establish probable cause,” she said.

Removing the need to contact five witnesses placed in fear will permit enhanced response capabilities, Marsh said

“SB1250 would help reduce panic [and] allow for immediate investigations of threats of mass violence,” she said. “It would provide probable cause from the threats for law enforcement to have search warrants to see if the threat could be carried out and to charge when necessary.”

Ricardo Flores, Maryland Office of the Public Defender director of government relations, questioned the need to amend the current law.

“I don’t think it’s overly burdensome to try and establish the fact that a number of people were put in fear by a threat,” he said.

The senate passed the bill by a 47-0 vote last Friday and the house will now consider corresponding HB1807, which is co-sponsored by Delegates Mary Beth Carozza (R-38C) and Charles Sydnor III (D-Baltimore County).

Interim Worcester County State’s Attorney William McDermott said adding one phrase to the current law would greatly aid prosecutors.

“Regardless of whether the threat is carried out … that’s the difference,” he said. “No longer do I have to prove that as a result of the threat people were placed in risk of substantial injury or death.”

McDermott said the expanded law also would permit increased latitude for addressing juveniles threatening violent plans.

In some instances, McDermott said law enforcement have limited options when investigating youths who make threats deemed to be dangerous.

“You take that person to a medical professional that says, ‘there’s a problem, but nothing that we can justify keeping them,’” he said. “We have to release that person [and] that person’s coming to school tomorrow if this law doesn’t get passed.”

Under the proposed expansions, McDermott said the Worcester County Department of Juvenile Services could intervene before subsequent court proceedings.

 

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