Tougher penalties sought for mass theft in Maryland

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A Maryland lawmaker has drafted a bill that would toughen penalties for mass thefts, such as a weekend incident in Silver Spring.

Delegate Jeffrey D. Waldstreicher, Montgomery Democrat, said Tuesday that he will sponsor legislation in next year’s General Assembly that would hold each mass-theft participant responsible for the total amount of merchandise stolen by the group.

Montgomery officials began calling for a crackdown this summer after about 25 teens and young adults stole merchandise from a 7-Eleven in Germantown, and Montgomery County police announced Monday that a similar theft took place Saturday night in Silver Spring.

“I think the most recent incident proves the point that law enforcement officers need more tools to deal with this phenomenon,” said Mr. Waldstreicher, a lawyer who serves on the House Judiciary Committee.

Police say as many as 50 teens and young adults entered the 7-Eleven in Silver Spring en masse at about 11:20 p.m. and stole an unknown amount of items, including chips and drinks. Police released surveillance video of the theft and are still investigating.

Police were able to identify and charge most of the suspects in the Germantown theft, and have classified both incidents as “mass thefts” rather than “flash mobs” — differentiating them from incidents in other cities where suspects planned their crimes beforehand using Facebook, Twitter or text messaging.

Montgomery officials have spent much of this year debating ways to combat teen crime, in reaction to several ugly incidents that included a July fight in downtown Silver Spring that involved 70 youths and resulted in a stabbing.

County Executive Isiah Leggett, a Democrat, has pushed for a curfew that would require people younger than 18 to be off the streets by 11 p.m. on weekdays and midnight on weekends. A curfew bill is being considered by the County Council.

Council member Phil Andrews, a vocal opponent of the curfew, said it would unfairly target all teens while posing no restrictions on young adults who might mingle with teens and be involved in illegal activities.

Mr. Andrews, a Democrat, said that the county executive already has authority to institute a curfew during states of emergency, and that a full-time curfew would not prevent crimes such as the Silver Spring mass theft, which took place 40 minutes before the proposed curfew would have gone into effect.

“It’s very unwise to legislate based on isolated events,” he said, adding that the curfew has drawn opposition from the Montgomery County Council of Parent-Teacher Associations and the Fraternal Order of Police. “The level of youth crime in Montgomery County does not necessitate a curfew.”

However, Mr. Andrews said he is not opposed to Mr. Waldstreicher’s General Assembly bill.

In Maryland, theft of less than $100 is a misdemeanor punishable by a maximum 90 days in jail, while theft of $100 to $1,000 is a misdemeanor punishable by a maximum 18 months in jail and $1,000 fine.

Theft of more than $1,000 is a felony punishable by a maximum 15 years in prison and $25,000 fine.

Opponents of the bill have raised constitutional concerns about the law holding each suspect responsible for their group’s actions and have pointed out that the stiffer penalties would not apply to minors.

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