ANNAPOLIS – Gov. Robert Ehrlich Tuesday announced legislation aimed at ending witness intimidation, specifically targeting gang activity.
The governor’s proposal would make it a felony to threaten or to solicit another person to intimidate a potential witness or victim of a crime. It would boost the penalty from five to 20 years in prison and impose a maximum $5,000 fine.
Ehrlich’s State House announcement was attended by lawmakers, other public officials, clergy members and an intimidation victim.
This year, Ehrlich said he would not accept defeat.
“The bill should have passed last year. It must pass this year,” he said.
The Senate Judicial Proceedings Committee on Tuesday heard Ehrlich’s bill and two similar proposals, which have raised civil liberties issues in the past.
Ehrlich said those past constitutional issues are moot.
Opponents, including the president of the 600-member Criminal Defense Attorneys Association, Timothy S. Mitchell, said the bill tramples the Sixth Amendment because it allows the government to introduce evidence through a “hearsay” provision where the defendant doesn’t have a right to question his or her accuser.
That provision states that if a witness is no longer available to testify through death or disappearance, the judge could rule on whether that person has been intimidated by the defendant. If the judge finds intimidation, the witness’s initial statement may be brought into court, still subject – according to Senate testimony – to the same rigorous standards existing when a witness is present.
“They want you to think this will only affect the drug dealers,” said Mitchell later. “This will affect every segment of society. In my opinion it will encourage people to avoid court by alleging intimidation.”
Four Prince George’s County residents told their stories of witness intimidation — of murder, interrupted lives and moments of terror — and why this legislation is necessary.
Prince George’s County State’s Attorney Glenn F. Ivey told senators, “We need new tools to send them (criminals) the right message.”
University of Maryland law professor Lynn McLain said the legislation is similar to federal law and laws in 14 states and Washington, D.C. A similar bill is pending in Oregon.
Case law, she said, is “even clearer than it was last year that this bill is constitutional.”
Baltimore State’s Attorney Patricia C. Jessamy presented a graphic DVD that was being sold on the streets of Baltimore. The DVD, titled “Stop Snitching” detailed what happens to witnesses, and gained national attention because it briefly featured Denver Nuggets basketball star Carmelo Anthony. Anthony has said he was filmed inadvertently and in the video says nothing about witness intimidation.
“This terrorism must end,” Jessamy said. “Our witnesses must be protected from this growing street vigilantism. I believe strengthening our statute on victim witness intimidation is the first step we must take.”