ANNAPOLIS – A retired judge told legislators this week that bills proposed to protect Marylanders from terrorism actually erode their liberties.
In some cases, lawmakers have resurrected bills — rejected long before the Sept. 11 attacks as being too restrictive – in the name of enhanced security, said former Baltimore Circuit Judge M. Albert Figinski.
Figinski leaned on the podium before the Senate Judicial Proceedings Committee shouting that senators were “asking for a constitutional challenge” if they passed the Maryland Security Act.
The act is a set of six bills developed by the Governor’s Anti-Terrorism Workgroup. Figinski contends it infringes on the right to privacy and judicial power.
The act would restrict price gouging, loosen existing wiretap laws, create crimes of terrorism, tie identity-card expiration to visas, increase authority for transportation police and boost penalties for an airport security breach.
Attorney General J. Joseph Curran Jr. said the legislation is necessary to protect citizens after nearly simultaneous airplane attacks on the World Trade Center and Pentagon by anti-U.S. militants.
One of the hijackers, Ziad al-Jarrah, was given a speeding ticket on I-95 in Maryland just a few days before the tragedy, yet he and others lived in the state undetected.
“Everything that those guys were doing is, I hope, covered in this legislation,” Curran said.
Ted Wieseman, spokesman for the Office of the Public Defender, said the bills cover terrorist activities and more.
“Let’s not change domestic criminal law under the guise of doing something that is already controlled by the federal government,” Wieseman said.
Wieseman pointed to the wiretap and identity fraud bills as two proposals that have failed in the General Assembly in years past.
The wiretap bill would allow for “roving” wiretaps, which let investigators tap multiple phones under the same court order in a case where someone had multiple mobile phones and a land phone line.
The changes to the identity fraud law would make adopting a false identity a felony punishable by $5,000 and 5 years in prison. Identity fraud now is a misdemeanor.
A portion of the act would limit the validity period of state identification cards and driver’s licenses for non-U.S. citizens. Their Maryland IDs would expire the same day as their passport or green card.
A representative for the Hispanic Democratic Club and the Maryland Latino Coalition for Justice submitted a statement opposing the bill because it unfairly targets law-abiding immigrants.
Easing wiretap restrictions also is a major problem, said Figinski. The proposed changes do not limit terrorism but do infringe on the right to privacy and usurp the jurisdiction of circuit judges. Under the bill, judges in Baltimore could order a phone line in Cecil County tapped.
The attorney general and state’s attorneys admitted the bill’s aim was to more easily wiretap drug dealers who use multiple mobile phones.
“This bill is not to limit terrorism,” Figinski told the Senate committee.
Sen. Ralph M. Hughes, D-Baltimore, questioned whether changes to the wiretap laws encroach on the right to privacy. Criminals don’t only talk to criminals, he said.
“Is this bill abrogating some of our civil rights by using terrorism as a cover?” Hughes asked Figinski at the hearing.
“This has become a convenient device to go beyond terrorist activity,” Figinski replied.
Overall, the Senate panel was supportive of the bill. Judicial Proceedings Chairman Walter M. Baker, D-Cecil, is a co-sponsor of the legislation along with Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller Jr., D-Calvert.
Sen. Leo Green, D-Prince George’s, said the General Assembly should do something to protect citizens concerned about public safety. “It’s a new world, as my son tells me,” said Green, whose son is a Navy commander stationed in Afghanistan. “We’re at war.” – 30 – CNS 2-22-02