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Stiffer charge sought for making threats in Maryland

Two men arrested after threatening to go on shooting sprees last year in Prince George's County faced misdemeanor charges that were far less severe than the nature of the threats made, according to prosecutors supporting legislation that would make it a felony to issue threats of mass violence in Maryland.

Describing a July incident in which a Crofton, Md., man made threats to his former employer over the phone that referenced the movie theater shootings in Aurora, Colo., Prince George's County State's Attorney Angela D. Alsobrooks said current state law fell short.

"We felt that this crime warrants some sort of response but learned through that that we had a limited response, which was that we could only file telephone misuse charges," Ms. Alsobrooks said as she testified in favor of the bill Wednesday in Annapolis.

Police arrested Neil Prescott, 28, and found 25 legally owned guns and a stockpile of ammunition at his home. He was hospitalized for a mental evaluation and is set for trial next week on charges of telephone misuse. Mr. Prescott faces a maximum three years in jail.

In a separate case last March, a University of Maryland, College Park student made threats in an online chat room about going on a shooting spree on the campus.

"I'm going to kill people tomorrow, including myself," student Alexander Song wrote in the online conversations. "I do need help, but I'm going to go on a rampage and kill people before I get that help."

Though police did not find any weapons in Mr. Song's possession after raiding his family home and on-campus dorm room, authorities took the threat seriously and charged him with eight criminal counts. Mr. Song pleaded guilty to disturbing activities at school and to telephone misuse and was sentenced to three years of supervised probation.

"Maryland is only one of seven states that does not have some type of criminal statute that deals with threats of mass violence or threats of terrorism," Ms. Alsobrooks said.

The proposed bill, which was sponsored by Delegate Kriselda Valderrama, Prince George's Democrat, would make the offense punishable by up to 10 years in prison or a $10,000 fine. The law would apply to both oral and written threats that cause five or more people to be "placed in fear that the crime will be committed" or take some sort of action as a result of the threat -- such as evacuating or taking shelter.

While no one spoke against the proposed legislation, lawmakers at hearings on the bill Tuesday and Wednesday questioned why current laws were not enough to prosecute the individuals cited as examples.

"Could you charge for reckless endangerment for that?" asked Delegate Sam Arora, Montgomery Democrat, of the College Park student's threats.

After reviewing the exact statute for reckless endangerment, Deputy State's Attorney Tara Jackson said prosecutors would have had a difficult time showing that a "threat over the Internet caused a substantial risk of death."

While the majority of states have laws prohibiting general threats, their punishments vary.

A threat made in writing or online in Virginia is punishable by up to five years in prison, though if the threat is for an act of terrorism the crime is punishable by up to 10 years. In the District, a threat to kidnap or injure another person is punishable by up to 20 years behind bars.

Ms. Valderrama called a similar law in Maryland "needed legislation" that would fill in as another prosecutorial tool.

However, House Judiciary Chairman Joseph F. Vallario Jr., who will be the one to call for a vote on the bill, appeared to scoff at the legislation.

"If there's a threat of some form of violence, it should already be covered under the law," the Prince George's Democrat said.

No vote has been scheduled on the bill. A cross-filed Maryland Senate bill is scheduled for a March 20 hearing.

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