ANNAPOLIS – A proposal to expand arrest powers for Montgomery County arson investigators sailed through the county’s House delegation Friday, minutes after a public hearing that few people, including some lawmakers, knew was scheduled.
The legislation has deep implications, giving select fire officials immunity from their mistakes.
Under current practice, the county’s 11 arson investigators can make citizens’ arrests without a warrant. That privilege is not protected if a person is wrongfully detained and decides to sue.
Delegate Kumar Barve’s bill would provide investigators the same authority as police, preempting such lawsuits.
Proponents told the delegation that such power is needed in a post-Sept. 11 era.
Arson investigators are called to handle bomb threats and other terrorist events, said Lt. Kevin Frazier, an investigator with the Montgomery County Fire and Rescue Service.
“Giving them arrest powers is something not new in the law,” he said. “Investigators are going through the same training as police officers in this county.”
Frazier acknowledged there have been no iinstances in the past where a warrantless arrest was necessary, and he said most arrests are authorized by a warrant, anyway.
The Prince George’s County fire department received arrest power through similar legislation in 1998. And while no lawsuits have been filed against Montgomery County officials, the possibility is something investigators want to avoid.
“We’re asking for very modest arrest powers,” said Gerard Evans, a lobbyist for the Montgomery County Career Fire Fighters. “They’re called upon to act as police officers but don’t have the same protection.”
Plus, arson investigators already train at the county police academy and receive federal certification. Because they don’t work under direct police supervision, they lack the ability to make warrantless arrests.
Montgomery County Police also like the idea.
“We are in support of what can aid them in their investigations,” said police spokeswoman Lucille Baur.
But the public has had little chance to comment. Introduced as a late- filed bill on Feb. 14, lawmakers only heard testimony from proponents, and no one appeared before the delegation in opposition.
That had at least one legislator apprehensive.
Delegate Luiz Simmons abstained from the 23-0-1 vote, citing a lack of “competing testimony” and “11th-hour pressure.”
“I’m very sympathetic to the environment created because of 9/11, but I don’t want that to be a catch-all excuse for expanding arrest powers,” Simmons said. “The arrest power should be guarded judiciously.”
Barve said he introduced the bill so late because, until last week, fire officials had been working with Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller Jr., D- Calvert, and Delegate Joseph Vallario, D-Prince George’s, on a statewide effort.
Miller and Vallario withdrew their support and suggested local legislation be drafted. The bill now goes to the county’s Senate delegation, where Barve expects easy passage likely at its Feb. 27 meeting.
“People feel it’s a sensible thing to do,” Barve said.