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Law enforcement rally to keep public marijuana smoking a crime

Should it be a crime to smoke marijuana in public?

More than two dozen law enforcement officers and prosecutors rallied in Annapolis Tuesday morning, hoping to persuade Democrats to let them continue seizing small amounts of cash from drug dealers and to keep it a crime to smoke marijuana in public.

Police, sheriffs, and state's attorneys said it would jeopardize public safety if the legislature reversed two bill vetoes issued by Republican Gov. Larry Hogan. Legislative leaders have said they will try to override these and other Hogan vetoes when the legislature reconvenes Wednesday.

Democrats, who hold super majorities in the General Assembly, passed both bills by overwhelming majorities last year and argue each one fixes problems with the current legal system. 

One bill decriminalizes possession of rolling papers, bongs and marijuana pipes, which remained a crime when lawmakers decriminalized small amounts of marijuana in 2014. Leaving paraphernalia possession as a crime was widely seen as an oversight, but the bill to correct it went further: it also made it a civil offense to smoke marijuana in public places, not a crime.

Law enforcement objected at the time to the measure, and asked Hogan to veto it.

Baltimore County State's Attorney Scott D. Shellenberger said Tuesday he thought the public would want police to intervene with the threat of criminal charges if someone smoked pot at a public beach or during an outdoor concert.

Shellenberger offered an alternative bill that would decriminalize paraphernalia possession but still make it a crime to smoke the drug in public. He said he does not yet had a lawmaker agree to sponsor it.

The police groups said if the vetoes were overridden, it would no longer be a crime to smoke a joint while driving. 

"If there's a kid in a car seat, he's getting a contact high," Anne Arundel County sheriff Ron Batemen said.

Proponents of the bill disagreed; other laws on the books still make it a crime to drive while impaired.

The law enforcement groups also brought two cars seized from drug dealers to illustrate how criminals stash cash and narcotics.  A second bill passed by the legislature aimed to make it easier for citizens who are not convicted of drug crimes to reclaim property seized by police. Among other things, it set a $300 threshold for cops to seize property suspected of being involved in the drug trade.

Law enforcement officers argued, and Hogan agreed, that the bill went too far and hampered their ability to crack down on drug dealers. 

Karen Kruger, general counsel for the Maryland Chiefs of Police Association, said the bill would raise the standard of proof to seize money to an unacceptably high level. She said that currently seizures are treated as a civil matter, with money being forfeited if the prosecution can show by a preponderance of evidence that it’s tainted.

Kruger said that in most cases it’s obvious that the person transporting the money knows it’s the fruit of a criminal enterprise.

“We can recognize it’s drug money because of the way it’s being transported,” she said as Maryland State Police Sgt. Mike Conner displayed some of the false compartments drug traffickers had built into their vehicles to carry “bricks” of cash.

Prince George's County Sheriff Melvin C. High said that asset seizure bill hampers their ability to fight "a life-threatening foe." Spelling out in more detail what police can and can not seize, he said, gives drug dealers a road map to thwart the law.

"Criminals work hard to develop counter measures," High said.

The two criminal justice bills were among six Hogan vetoed in May. In addition to the two criminal justice measures, he vetoed a law that would restore voting rights to felons before they complete probation and another that would increase the taxes paid by online hotel booking companies such as Expedia.

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