A Maryland lawmaker is considering legislation in next year’s General Assembly to strengthen penalties related to flash-mob robberies.
Delegate Jeffrey D. Waldstreicher, Montgomery Democrat, said he might sponsor a bill that would hold each flash-mob participant responsible for the total amount of merchandise stolen by the group, rather than just for their own actions.
Montgomery officials first encountered the problem last month when roughly 30 young people returning from the county fair entered a 7-Eleven in Germantown en masse and stole merchandise.
If the bill becomes law, anybody who steals $10 in merchandise as part of a $1,000 mass robbery could be charged with stealing all $1,000 worth of items.
“We just want to make sure that prosecutors have enough tools to deal with the growing phenomenon,” said Mr. Waldstreicher, an attorney and member of the House Judiciary Committee.
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 prison 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.
Montgomery officials have worried that flash mobs could become more frequent without intervention and intensify into violent crimes.
Flash mobs have become a growing problem in Philadelphia, where teens have in some cases gathered by the hundreds to harass and assault bystanders. Similar incidents have occurred this year in Chicago, Milwaukee, Wis., and the District - where in April about 20 teens robbed a Dupont Circle clothing store of about $20,000 in merchandise.
Some such incidents were organized beforehand by teens using Facebook, Twitter or text messaging. Montgomery police say last month’s Germantown robbery was carried out spontaneously without the use of electronic media.
While county officials hope to stop such a trend before it starts, some critics have argued that they are overreacting to an isolated incident and might be overstepping their legal bounds.
Delegate Michael D. Smigiel Sr., Cecil Republican, said he has “constitutional concerns” about the law holding each suspect responsible for the group’s actions.
He said such a concept is mainly reserved for especially heinous crimes including felony murder, in which an accomplice or getaway driver can be charged with the same crime as the physical assailant.
He said the issue is further complicated by the fact that many flash-mob assailants are minors and might not be susceptible to adult penalties.
“I don’t think that we should lessen the seriousness of the laws that we have by making kids who shoplift accountable for the acts of” the entire group, said Mr. Smigiel, who is also an attorney and House Judiciary Committee member.
Mr. Waldstreicher defended his stance, saying that charging all suspects equally in mass crimes is not an unusual concept and that adults have in many cases participated in flash mobs. He said the harsher penalties detailed in his proposal would likely not apply to suspects charged as children.
He added that the bill would be more about helping law enforcement than punishing children and acknowledged it is important not to “overreact or overlegislate.”
“If we can give our state’s attorneys and police officers new tools to make sure the law catches up with what’s happening on the ground, we have an obligation to do that,” Mr. Waldstreicher said.