ANNAPOLIS – Assaulting a police officer could bring a felony charge and a mandatory one-year sentence if any one of several bills in the Maryland General Assembly become law.
The proposals’ proponents say increasing the penalty will help lower the number of police officers assaulted.
“Word is going to travel … you (can) expect to get some kind of swift and harsh sentence to go along with it,” said Anne Arundel County Sheriff George Johnson IV, Maryland Sheriffs’ Association’s president, adding that increasing the charge would help foster more respect for law enforcement.
In 1998, 33 of every 100 officers were assaulted, according to the Maryland Uniform Crime Report.
Opponents say current laws are stringent enough. It’s up to judges to provide stricter sentencing. House Judiciary Chairman Joseph Vallario Jr., D-Prince George’s, said he doesn’t favor mandatory sentences.
“It’s against the law to assault police officers now,” Vallario said. “Leave (sentencing) to the discretion of the judges.”
Two House bills are proposed. They raise the severity of the crime from a second-degree misdemeanor, punishable by up to 10 years in prison and a $2,500 fine, to a first-degree felony, punishable with a maximum 25-year sentence. One gives judges more sentencing discretion.
The bill sponsored by Delegate Dick D’Amato, D-Anne Arundel, requires judges to sentence convicts to at least one year in prison, but allows them to suspend the sentence. D’Amato’s bill is identical to one proposed by Sen. James DeGrange Sr., D-Anne Arundel.
Legislation by Delegate Charles Barkley, D-Montgomery and a Judiciary Committee member, is similar, but prohibits suspension of the one-year mandatory sentence.
The House Judiciary Committee discussed both bills Tuesday.
D’Amato’s bill was introduced last year and it failed to get out of committee.
The bills’ prospects of committee passage have changed little since last session, Vallario said.
Judges aren’t tough enough on police assailants, D’Amato said.
Maryland’s surrounding states all have similar laws and lower assault rates, he said. The felony charge sends a message to judges and attackers.
“The message is how severe we regard this problem and we want the system to tighten up substantially on this violation,” he said.
However, others like Delegate Kevin Kelly, D-Allegany, Judiciary Committee member, and the Public Defender’s Office agree with Vallario – there is no need for mandatory sentencing because the law already gives judges the ability to impose harsh sentences.
If police chiefs feel attackers are getting off easy, Kelly said, they should talk to the judge about tougher sentencing.
“Protect the police, if (people) beat up on the cops, hammer them. The laws are already there. (A new law) is unneeded and has potential for abuse,” he said.
Kelly said under these proposals, a minor incident – say, pushing an officer – could end in a one-year prison sentence. Prosecutors have more leverage with a felony charge carrying a mandatory sentence, he said.
But D’Amato said his legislation gives the judge the ability to suspend the sentence because every circumstance is different. Barkley said his bill wasn’t drafted to deal with minor scuffles.
“The bill is really aimed to go after the person with intent to physically harm the policeman,” he said.
But Cumberland Police Lt. Larry Gyger said he agreed with Kelly, saying judges should be responsible for imposing harsher sentences when dealing with police assaults, rather than legislators imposing mandated sentences.