- The Washington Times - Monday, March 2, 2009

Maryland lawmakers will begin their debate Tuesday on how to prevent a repeat of the 2005 police-spying effort in which peaceful activists were labeled as terrorists.

Whether to change laws regarding the delicate balance between freedom and security is expected to be a key debate for the 2009 General Assembly.

“None of us ever had a chance to vote on the First Amendment, but we’re going to have a chance to vote on something that makes it meaningful for our state,” said Sen. Jamie B. Raskin, Montgomery County Democrat and a member of the state Senate Judicial Proceedings Committee. The committee will hear testimony Tuesday on two bills with different approaches to balancing civil liberties and the ability of police to enforce the law.

The bills come in response to a widely criticized police-surveillance program that took place over 14 months in 2005 and 2006, under the administration of Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr., Republican.

During that time, undercover Maryland State Police, with the assistance of the Department of Homeland Security, kept tabs on a wide range of anti-war, anti-death-penalty and other activist groups, infiltrating meetings, spying on protests and keeping files on their members.

The names of 53 activists subsequently were put in a police database identifying them as terrorists. After the Maryland chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union revealed details of the program in July 2008, state police admitted that they had overstepped their bounds and purged the names from the list.

Among the infiltrated groups were the Baltimore Pledge of Resistance, a peace group, and the Committee to Save Vernon Evans, a death-row inmate.

Documents show that a trooper used a fake e-mail address to get on the groups’ e-mail lists and monitored members at Lawyers Mall in Annapolis; the Electric Maid community center in the District’s Takoma Park neighborhood; and outside Baltimore’s Maryland Correctional Adjustment Center, or “SuperMax.”

It’s not clear whether the names, including those of two Catholic nuns, were added to the federal database, as first reported.

Gov. Martin O’Malley, Democrat, called for a special investigation, which found the department had violated the groups’ civil liberties.

Maryland State Police “intruded upon the ability of law-abiding Marylanders to associate and freely express themselves,” lead investigator and former State Attorney General Stephen H. Sachs said in a report.

A group of Montgomery County lawmakers and Mr. O’Malley have introduced competing legislation to prevent future incidents and to define what state policy should be regarding the First Amendment and police surveillance.

On one side stands Mr. Raskin and the Democrat-controlled Assembly, which favors strict and comprehensive oversight of law-enforcement agencies. That proposal would outlaw the keeping of political files and dossiers on activists and the use of “lawful covert techniques” to infiltrate a political group unless there is “reasonable, articulable suspicion” that a law will be violated.

“It’s frightening, the idea that the state was doing something like this. Many people were stunned,” said Delegate Sheila E. Hixson, a Montgomery County Democrat and a key sponsor of the Assembly’s version of the bill. “There have to be protections written into the law for safeguarding citizens.”

On the other side is Mr. O’Malley, who proposed his own bill as part of his 2009 legislative agenda. The bill, coming in the wake of Mr. Sachs’ investigation, does not forbid law enforcement from keeping files on activists and allows the authorization of state police surveillance activities of certain groups if doing so is in the interest of a “legitimate law enforcement objective.”

Lawmakers say the governor’s proposal is too vague and leaves too much discretion and oversight to police.

“If state and local police regulated themselves, this wouldn’t have happened in the first place,” said Delegate Tom Hucker, Montgomery County Democrat. “We need more legislative oversight.”

O’Malley spokeswoman Christine Hansen said the governor’s bill provides efficient tools for law enforcement while simultaneously protecting civil liberties.

“It strikes a balance between protecting rights of individuals and conducting legitimate enforcement practices,” she said.

The Assembly’s bill has the support of civil-rights advocates, including the group that revealed the incident.

“I am hopeful that stronger protections will win out,” said Cynthia Boersma, legislative director of the Maryland ACLU. The governor’s “bill does not provide clear guidelines for law enforcement. It’s very open-ended, and it’s just too vague.”

Mr. Raskin says now is the time to debate the issue.

“There will be very active discussion and debate how the law should read,” he said.

Ms. Hixson expects very little bipartisan support.

“I’m sure the Republicans are going to be against this bill, but we’ll find out at the hearing,” she said.

Delegate Anthony J. O’Donnell, Calvert Republican and House minority leader, would like to see the emotion taken out of the debate.

“We have to look at the details very carefully,” he said. “There’s always a fine line between safety and security, and we don’t want to hear a verdict before the case has been presented.”

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