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Maryland must investigate police spying

July 25, 2008

Using Maryland State Police to spy on nonviolent death penalty opponents and peace activists must have seemed like a good idea to somebody back in 2005, but nobody's bragging about it now.

This week The Baltimore Sun quoted Robert Ehrlich Jr., the governor in office during the 14-month operation, as saying he didn't know anything about it.

Former police superintendent Thomas E. "Tim" Hutchins, would not discuss it.

Police surveillance should not be conducted unless officers have probable cause to believe criminal activity is involved.

In this case, 14 months of spying on death penalty foes and opponents of the Iraq war yielded no evidence of any crimes.

It did, however, result in the names of some of those under surveillance being placed on a law enforcement database of suspected terrorists and drug traffickers.

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The operation was made public July 18, after the American Civil Liberties Union sued to get the records.

The following week, Del. Brian Frosh, D-Montgomery and chairman of the House Judicial Proceedings Committee, said he would hold hearings in September, and possibly introduce legislation. Congress has expressed interest in a probe of its own.

A spokesman for Gov. Martin O'Malley has offered his assurance that such things won't happen during the current administration. He also said that O'Malley feels no new law is needed to guarantee that.

Maybe it isn't, but we'll reserve judgment on that until we hear from former state police superintendent Hutchins, who has agreed to testify.

Until then, all we know is this: Someone in state government decided that bending the rules was justified. Just why they felt that way isn't clear now.

Nor is there a good answer to why someone in authority didn't realize that this operation violated the First Amendment to the Constitution, which guarantees "the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the government for a redress of grievances."

Good people can disagree about whether the death penalty is cruel and unusual punishment or whether the war in Iraq is just.

Those who speak out should expect someone to disagree with them, but not to be spied on or placed on some terrorist watch list. Marylanders should not rest until they find out who in authority thought otherwise.

And once citizens get some answers on the constitutional questions, here's another to ask:

Which real criminal cases weren't investigated while a state police unit was secretly probing lawful, peaceful protests?

If Maryland has gotten to the point where state police officials have to search for things for their officers to do, please send some to Hagerstown to help close a few local cases.

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