Police Conduct and Local Government Liability Major Issues of 2015 Session

An April 23rd Capital News Service article summarized the outcomes of the numerous legislation introduced during the 2015 Session to address police conduct, local government liability,  The issue of police conduct was especially sensitive during the Session in the wake of police-involved deaths in Ferguson, Mo., and elsewhere.  From the article:

House Judiciary Committee Vice Chair Kathleen Dumais, D-Montgomery, said more than 400 witnesses came to Annapolis to testify on more than a dozen law enforcement bills.

“It is very concerning, the allegations made by many community members from across the state,” she said.

In response, legislators passed several bills aimed at protecting citizens from police misconduct, though they stopped short of a few measures critics said would exert too much control over law enforcement agencies, such as a bill to amend the Law Enforcement Officers’ Bill of Rights.

The article noted that the General Assembly passed bills that increased reporting requirements for deaths involving police actions and shift the burden of proof onto the government to show that personal property is associated with the drug trade before taking the property through civil forfeiture. Legislation also passed allowing law enforcement officers to record audio as well as video through a body camera.  Under existing law, police could not record audio on a body camera without first getting the consent of those being recorded.  Governor Larry Hogan has indicated he will sign both the reporting and body camera bills.

As previously reported on Conduit Street, the General Assembly increased the liability limits for local governments under the Local Government Tort Claims Act from $200,000 to $400,000 for a single claim and from $500,000 to $800,000 for all claims arising from a single incident.  Similar increases were also applied to the State’s liability caps under the Maryland Tort Claims Act.   From the article:

Those initiatives were propelled in part by the story of Estela Espina, who received the legal maximum of $400,000 after a Prince George’s County police officer fatally shot her husband; some legislators said she should have been awarded more, citing a jury’s $11.5 million verdict.

Critics say increased liability for local governments, from $200,000 per single claim with a $500,000 maximum per incident to $400,000 and $800,000, respectively, would prompt cities and counties to stop offering certain services for fear of expensive cases.

“We basically undermine the public service” with the tort reform bills, said state Sen. Robert Cassilly, R-Harford, during a debate on the Senate floor April 9.

Another area that the General Assembly examined but did not take action on was reforming the Law Enforcement Bill of Rights, which ostensibly provides process protections for law enforcement officers accused of misconduct but which MACo believes often prevents law enforcement agencies from properly disciplining or removing officers who are “bad actors.”  The reform effort was led by Baltimore City Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake and will likely continue in light of the recent death of Freddie Gray while he was in police custody. Gray’s death is under investigation by both the City and the federal Justice Department.

[Rawlings-Blake], whose administration requested two officer misconduct bills during the legislative session, told CNN’s Anderson Cooper on Tuesday that she is “determined to make sure that we have a full investigation and we follow all of the rules and procedures, so if there is a finding of wrongdoing that we have done everything possible … so we can hold those individuals accountable.”

She also said that “because of our (state) Law Enforcement Officers’ Bill of Rights, we have yet to fully engage those officers” involved with Gray’s death.

Neither of the Mayor’s proposed bills passed.  The article also covered several other key areas of debate, including the passage of enhanced shielding and expungement laws (the Maryland Second Chance Act) and the repeal of mandatory prison sentences for people convicted of certain drug crimes.

Sen. Bobby Zirkin, D-Baltimore County, head of the Senate Judicial Proceedings Committee, said the state is shifting from harsh punishments toward restorative justice.

“To have criminal records (for minor, nonviolent offenses) that last for the rest of your life, first of all, I think is unfair, but more importantly doesn’t work when you keep somebody from getting a job or housing or education,” Zirkin said. …

But critics say the measures would help drug dealers and repeat offenders. [Del. John Cluster Jr., R-Baltimore County] said the Second Chance Act started out offering to shield “one crime, one time,” but became too far-reaching.

“What it turned into was you can shield as many records as you can on this bill in one jurisdiction,” Cluster said. “It puts a burden on the business owner because he just can’t check (employees’ criminal records) now.”