The segments below provide a brief overview of MACo’s work in the area of liability and courts in the 2023 General Assembly.
County governments enforce laws, employ county residents, and maintain facilities throughout Maryland. Therefore county governments may be subject to acting as defendants in court, litigating cases involving employment benefits, injuries sustained on county properties, and various other subjects. MACo advocates on behalf of county governments to clarify the unique role that they serve as employers and public institutions, ensuring the balance of public interests that account for the burden placed upon taxpayers by excessive litigation.
In addition to the swearing-in of a new governor, the 445th legislative session kicked off with more relaxed health and safety measures compared to the turbulence of the last few years. This enabled MACo’s policy team to dynamically engage with private-sector stakeholders, legislators, and representatives from all divisions of government. Under these more conventional circumstances, MACo’s advocacy led to a plethora of favorable outcomes for its members.
MACo took no position on SB 686/HB 1 – Civil Actions – Child Sexual Abuse – Definition, Damages, and Statute of Limitations. MACo offered a letter of information outlining the county level impacts. The bill expands the opportunity for victims of childhood sex abuse to hold their assailants accountable in court at any time. In doing so this legislation also increases the potential for counties to incur increased cost and liability. Counties were appreciative of the goal of this legislation and were more than willing to work with stakeholders to further the intent while maintaining effective governmental operations and budgetary obligations. This bill passed.
Court Fines and Fees
MACo supported with amendments HB 154/SB 924 – Workgroup to Study the Impact of Court-Mandated Fines and Fees. This bill would establish a workgroup to study, and provide recommendations regarding, court-mandated fines and fees − in particular, those affecting low-income residents. Counties recognize that the financial burdens of the courts and justice system may potentially accumulate to, by themselves, become a matter of societal fairness as unreasonable upon those with lesser means. The evaluation envisioned by this bill could offer insight into those possible burdens and means to modify them to promote more equitable structures. To that end MACo’s amendment was to ensure the inclusion of representatives from a county health department, a law enforcement agency, and a correctional facility. HB 154/SB 924 failed with little movement or discussion in either chamber.
MACo did not take a position but offered a letter of information on HB 127/SB 594 – District Court – Small Claims – Enforcement of Money Judgements. This legislation would eliminate the ability of counties to order the appearance of an individual in the collection of a money judgement. This process provides an opportunity to discuss the assets and wages available for collection of the debt and in most cases ends well before a warrant would even be considered. MACo can see that the elimination of debtor’s prison is a likely and worthwhile policy outcome but would advise that a more narrow approach to the problem is preferable, rather than abandoning the requirement that people be held accountable for their known tax liabilities. HB 127/SB 594 passed.
MACo supported with amendments HB 133/SB 43 – Court Proceedings – Remote Public Access and Participation. This bill would require counties across the state to fund and facilitate the installation of simultaneous remote audio-visual public access to all public proceedings taking place within the Circuit Court system. Circuit Courts are fully funded by county governments but operated by the State. MACo agrees that the potential to create greater ease of access and transparency in court proceedings would have a public benefit but submitted the amendment that the renovations should be undertaken pending the availability of funding in the State budget. HB 133/SB 43 failed.
MACo supported HB 1027 – Vehicle Laws – Bus Lane Monitoring Systems – Statewide Expansion. This legislation would allow counties to install and manage bus lane monitoring systems, and clarify their authority to allow other types of vehicles to use the bus lanes as they see fit. An additional tool in maintaining motor vehicle compliance and safety in neighborhoods and communities would be a welcome benefit but ultimately failed.
MACo supported HB 353 – Traffic Control Device Monitoring Systems – Authorization. This bill would allow counties to install traffic control device monitoring systems on county roadways. This is enabling legislation but ultimately failed.
MACo supported SB 229/HB 1130 – Vehicle Laws – Noise Abatement Monitoring System. This bill would allow counties to install noise abatement monitoring systems on county roadways and issue civil fines to individuals found in violation of the existing decibel limit. This relatively new technology would give county governments a tool to actually enforce the existing decibel laws for motor vehicles. While SB 229 passed in the Senate it staled in the House and failed.
MACo supported with amendment HB 367 – Vehicle Laws – Stop Sign Monitoring Systems – Authorization. This bill would allow counties to install stop sign monitoring systems on county roadways. Additionally, this legislation offered a novel approach to levy civil penalties based on the annual income of the individual who perpetrated the violation. The language also required counties to use revenue from the fines to recoup the cost of the systems and put any remaining balance towards pedestrian safety. In sticking with existing automated enforcement laws, MACo submitted an amendment to broaden the allowable use of the funding to public safety. HB 367 failed with a majority of the discussion centering around complications and concerns about the scaled penalties.
MACo opposed SB 11 – Motor Vehicles – Establishment of School Zones. This bill would shrink the current default size of a school zone in all counties from a half-mile radius to just five hundred feet from a school – up to a 99% reduction in school zones. MACo fears this would eliminate the many layers of pedestrian protection and roadway safety designed to keep students safe in areas where school bus service is necessarily limited. SB 11 was initially amended but not to the extent a change in position was warranted and it ultimately failed in the House after passing the Senate.
MACo offered a letter of information on SB 577 – Vehicle Laws – Speed Monitoring Systems – Counties and Municipal Corporations. This legislation would have limited a counties ability to place speed cameras in a municipality, despite following the existing guidelines to do so. This bill failed as it was ultimately withdrawn by the sponsor.