ANNAPOLIS – House Judiciary Committee members heard testimony Tuesday on two bills aimed at preventing crime – using the death penalty to deter drug murders and seizing cars to deter prostitution.
Opponents said the death penalty doesn’t scare drug dealers, who face the threat of death every day, and that taking someone’s car won’t stop people from buying sex.
But supporters said the respective bills would make people stop and think before they solicit a prostitute or before they kill someone over drugs.
“I have been trying to think of a way to get at the drug problem,” said Del. Michael W. Burns, R-Anne Arundel, who sponsored the death penalty bill. “People are using because they have to. People aren’t selling because they have to. That’s a choice. It’s a violent choice.”
Burns’ bill would add a drug provision to the list of 10 aggravated circumstances that can now trigger the death penalty.
That means capital punishment could be used in murder cases involving certain drug offenses, such as possession, distribution or conspiracy. Burns said his bill also makes accomplices in these murders eligible.
The measure is a companion to one sponsored by Sen. Richard Colburn, R-Dorchester, and one of several death penalty bills sponsored this session.
But Del. Rushern L. Baker III, D-Prince George’s, was skeptical of the deterrent factor.
“Drug dealers are very efficient in killing people who deal drugs. That’s what they do,” he said. “If that doesn’t deter people from dealing drugs, what makes you think this bill will?”
Other critics said the bill was too broad, and questioned whether it really would apply to accomplices.
George Lippman, an assistant public defender, said the measure doesn’t even address language in existing law specifying that only the triggerman is eligible for the death penalty. Nor, he said, does it require that the drug offense be related to the murder.
The anti-prostitution bill is sponsored by Del. Peter A. Hammen, D-Baltimore, and is similar to a law recently enacted in Washington, D.C.
Baltimore City Police Sgt. John Kowalczuk testified in support of the bill. He said that in the last year and a half, his officers have dealt with more than 500 prostitution-related cases and most involved repeat offenders. In at least 95 percent of those cases, he added, vehicles were used.
Currently, judges give the customers a small fine and a suspended sentence, Kowalczuk said.
“I look at this as a strong deterrent sending a message that we’re not going to tolerate this in our neighborhood,” he said.
Committee members and opponents questioned how the bill would affect co-owners of seized vehicles and banks with outstanding liens. Others said the bill was another attempt to penalize people for participating in an activity that shouldn’t be a crime.
“This bill amounts to an outrageous overkill in an attempt to try to regulate an activity that should not be illegal in the first place,” said Kenneth A. Stevens of Savage.
Paul Kuhn, 31, said he was a prostitute in Washington, adding that the district’s law doesn’t deter anyone. The johns — or customers — just park their cars and walk to the prostitute, he said. He urged committee members to stop penalizing prostitution. “No one in this room has the power to stop casual sex, including sex for hire,” Kuhn said. -30-