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Washington County legislators say police surveillance shouldn't cross line

July 25, 2008|By ANDREW SCHOTZ

WASHINGTON COUNTY -- If they're investigating possible crimes, state police can monitor advocacy groups, some members of Washington County's Maryland General Assembly delegation said Thursday.

But the distinction needs to be clear, elected officials said; tracking and infiltrating groups because of their opinions isn't acceptable.

"There's no question that has a chilling effect on democratic principles," said Sen. Donald F. Munson, R-Washington.

He added, though, "if in fact they're terrorist groups, I have no problem with it."

The actions of the Maryland State Police are being scrutinized now because of information that recently came out about their surveillance in 2005 and 2006. The American Civil Liberties Union of Maryland says it has documents showing that state police spied on a local peace group and two groups opposed to the death penalty during a 14-month period.

There's been talk of state hearings in Annapolis, and members of Congress have expressed interest in finding out more, such as whether federal Department of Homeland Security funding was involved.

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In an e-mail statement, U.S. Rep. Roscoe Bartlett, a Republican who represents Maryland's 6th District, said he agreed with a request for information from the Department of Homeland Security.

"It is hard to imagine the homeland security and public safety consequences that would justify covert infiltration of groups opposed to the death penalty by Maryland state law enforcement officers," his statement says. "Advancing homeland security efforts is important, but it can only be done within the boundaries of constitutional safeguards."

"We're all very concerned about individual constitutional rights ... but we're also very concerned about terrorist activities," said Del. Andrew A. Serafini, R-Washington.

He said state police shouldn't need to track peace advocates. Yet, behind-the-scenes work of police might have helped head off another terrorist attack.

"We need more facts, but we definitely need to look into this," he said.

"It's a judgment call of whether they're doing something that's truly biased or for our protection," said Del. LeRoy E. Myers Jr., R-Washington/Allegany.

A group shouldn't be monitored just for expressing opinions, but opposition groups known to break laws can be watched, he said.

Del. Christopher B. Shank, R-Washington, accused the ACLU of sensationalizing the story and predicted that grandstanding lawmakers will latch on to the movement.

He said state police take action when they get credible tips. Comparisons to the surveillance efforts directed by President Nixon are off base, he said, because Nixon targeted groups for their beliefs.

If the police backed away from looking at possible crimes, among any group, "you would turn Maryland into a haven for drug activity (and) terrorist activity," Shank said.

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