ANNAPOLIS- A series of bills designed to protect witnesses and victims in Maryland criminal cases set off heated debate between proponents and legislators Wednesday, mirroring a battle from last year’s session.
Much of the contention centered on a House of Delegates bill – backed by Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. and co-sponsored by over 40 delegates – which would add 10 additional crimes to the list of those in which intimidating a witness or a victim is a already a felony.
Among the crimes the bill would add are second-degree assault, certain types of sexual assault, incest, child abuse, and conspiracy to commit violent crimes or felony drug crimes. The Legislature passed a heavily-amended bill last year to make intimidation in cases involving violent crimes and felony drug crimes a felony with a maximum penalty of 20 years in prison.
Baltimore City State’s Attorney Patricia C. Jessamy told the House Judiciary Committee that adding those crimes to the list would likely help stop intimidation in situations where it is perhaps less noticeable than in cases involving drug and violent crimes.
“Oftentimes, it’s the most subtle forms of intimidation that thwart justice,” she said. “The conspiracy of silence is a serious threat to public safety.”
Delegate Luiz R. S. Simmons, D-Montgomery, questioned that reasoning, saying that last year’s bill was passed solely on the basis of numerical evidence of intimidation by gangs.
“There seems to be a little amnesia in the room right now,” he said. “Where is the evidence as opposed to the anecdotes?”
Alan Friedman, the governor’s director of legislative relations, called witness intimidation “a scourge on our judicial system,” and said that it can occur in situations other than those that are highly publicized.
“The people who engage in the type of intimidation we are discussing don’t spray paint their message on the sides of buildings. They don’t make DVDs,” Friedman said referring to the bootleg “Stop Snitching” DVDs that have become popular in Baltimore and other cities.
Delegate Robert A. Zirkin, D-Baltimore County, asked if including these crimes, some of which are misdemeanors, meant that eventually intimidation would become a felony in all cases.
“Should we just put the entire criminal code under this bill?” he asked Jessamy in a tense exchange. “You’re elevating intimidation to a crime over the crime itself.”
Jessamy responded that intimidation should not be a felony in all cases, but that the existing law simply does not go far enough.
“I had indicated that I thought the legislation that was passed last year was insufficient,” she said.
The committee also considered two bills which would restrict electronic access to the personal information of criminal witnesses and victims contained in court records.
Antonio Gioia of the Baltimore City State’s Attorney’s Office criticized the state Court of Appeals’ current rule on access to electronic records, which allows for subscribers under the Internet’s “cloak of anonymity” to view full records for a monthly fee.
“The rule pays short shrift to the victims and witnesses of crime,” he said. “It almost goes so far as to victimize them twice.”
Under current practice, a witness or victim must ask for their information to be shielded and have their request approved by a judge.
Friedman said that the Maryland Judiciary has offered to remove electronic access to information like phone numbers and addresses, but not the names of witnesses or victims included in charging documents or other court files. Both bills as written would remove the names as well.
Carol D. Melamed, vice president of government affairs for The Washington Post, said that removing the names would shut off the courts from the public. “Public identities is a core part of our open system of justice,” she said.