ANNAPOLIS Police this week asked state legislators for more tools in their increasingly high-tech war against child pornography, but critics warned that quirks in Internet technology could unfairly subject innocent people to prosecution.
“(Child pornography) is out of hand,” said State Police Computer Crimes Unit Commander Barry Leese.
“Everyone has the Internet. Everyone has access. Everyone can download it,” he told the House Judiciary Committee on Thursday. “It’s almost epidemic.”
But some lawmakers were concerned that the new police powers could trap blameless Internet users.
“My concern is that you’re putting a person who inadvertently sees a picture in the same category as someone who has a pernicious intent,” said Delegate Kenneth C. Montague Jr., D-Baltimore.
State police submitted one bill to the House this week that increases the charge of possession of child pornography from a misdemeanor to a felony. Under current law, first- time violators can be fined as much as $2,500 and face one year in prison.
If the bill passes, people caught with child pornography for the first time could get a $5,000 fine and up to two years in prison.
State police also want to keep search warrants under seal for 30 days as they investigate child pornography cases. They submitted such a bill to the Senate this week.
Both proposals sparked debate among lawmakers and in the legal community.
Some legislators worried, for instance, that people who receive electronic mail not knowing that child pornography is attached could be prosecuted for a felony.
Plus, said Delegate Dana Lee Dembrow, D-Montgomery, the bill leaves too much to the discretion of police because it doesn’t clearly define possession.
“Under the law, everyone who owns a computer could have possession because everyone has access,” Dembrow said.
Leese told legislators that the officers in his 10- person computer crimes unit investigate only after complaints. That system makes it highly unlikely that people who unknowingly download illegal material would be prosecuted, he said.
Last year, Maryland’s 8-year-old computer crime unit cracked open 45 computers seized by police. Nearly one-half of those probes yielded child pornography.
The National Law Center for Children and Families wrote a letter in support of toughening penalties for possession of child pornography to Delegate Joseph Vallario, D-Prince George’s who is chairman of the House Judiciary Committee.
“The deterrent effect alone will be effective, in case pedophiles think Maryland’s laws will let them off easy,” wrote Bruce Taylor, president and chief counsel to the group based in Fairfax, Va.
But legislators suggested that state police shouldn’t ask for tougher laws until the current laws are fully executed.
“Who are you sending a message to if the current laws aren’t enforced?” asked Delegate Carmen Amedori, R-Carroll, during the House hearing.
The Office of the Public Defender spoke against the Senate bill allowing police to seal warrants for 30 days during a Senate Judiciary Proceedings committee hearing Tuesday.
Representing the office, Ted Weissman told Senators that the bill is dangerous because there is no sure way to know who the violator is when many people could be using the same computer. Plus he said sealing the warrants may violate individual’s First Amendment rights.
“We question,” said Weissman, “whether it is constitutional.”