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State gang bills get off course

April 04, 2007|by ANDREW SCHOTZ

ANNAPOLIS - Identical state House and Senate bills on tougher enforcement of gang crimes have taken different paths in the Maryland General Assembly.

The House version was weakened before it passed, Sen. Nancy Jacobs, R-Cecil/Harford, the Senate sponsor, said Tuesday.

"I knew they gutted it a couple of weeks ago," she said.

In January - during a hearing that featured Hagerstown Police Department Detective Todd Dunkle, a gang expert - the proposed measure was described as a collective approach to prosecuting gang activities, in the same vein as the Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organization Act (RICO) that took on the Mafia.

The proposal was to expand the definition of gangs and let authorities seize money and property traceable to gang activity. Prosecutors would have been able to charge people for crimes they might not have committed, but might have had a connection to through gang affiliation.

The bills that were filed, though, were not as strong as advertised. For example, seizure power was not included.

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At first, the House bill said a person could not "participate in a criminal gang knowing that the members of the gang engage in or have engaged in a pattern of criminal gang activity." An amended version removed the "have engaged in" clause, which refers to past behavior.

The maximum penalty was cut from 30 years in prison to 10 years or, if someone was killed, 20 years.

The original bill applied to gang members "individually or collectively," but "individually" was removed.

Del. Mary-Dulany James, D-Cecil/Harford, the House sponsor, said delegates who supported a softer bill probably misunderstood it.

The House passed the bill 134-1 on March 23. All five delegates representing Washington County voted in favor.

The Maryland Office of the Public Defender opposes the bill. In a written analysis, the office called it "unconstitutionally vague" and said it "imposes unreasonable restrictions on the First Amendment of association." Staff attorney Amy Fusting questioned the likelihood of proving that a person knows others' criminal patterns.

Sen. Alex X. Mooney, R-Frederick/Washington, said during Tuesday's hearing that the Frederick County state's attorney has called the bill "watered down" and "worthless."

Sean Malone, a deputy legislative officer for Gov. Martin O'Malley, replied that the administration, which requested the bill, is disappointed, but would rather have something than nothing. "This state is starving for some gang legislation," he said.

The administration is trying to revive some of the bill's early strength through amendments.

Jacobs' version of the bill, which matched the initial House version, hasn't gotten past the Judicial Proceedings Committee.

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