Maryland black caucus votes to oppose bill that would dilute court's bail rule

In what could be a devastating blow to bail bondsmen, Maryland's Legislative Black Caucus voted overwhelmingly Thursday to oppose legislation that would partially restore the role of cash bail in pretrial release.

The caucus voted, 31-5, to oppose a bill favored by the bail bond industry — and approved by the state Senate — that would overrule the Court of Appeals' instruction in February that court commissioners and judges consider other forms of pretrial release before resorting to cash bail.

Opponents of the bill said the vote gives House Speaker Michael E. Busch the political cover he needs to keep the legislation off the House floor. Busch later acknowledged that the vote affects the bill's future.

"This sends a clear message to House leadership that the issue is dead for this year," Del. Curt Anderson said.

The question of how the General Assembly should respond — if at all — to the Court of Appeals rule has been one of the hardest-fought battles of this legislative session. The caucus came down firmly on the side of letting the rule stand.

Del. Cheryl Glenn, the Baltimore Democrat who chairs the caucus, made the motion to oppose the Senate measure. She said the legislature should study how the rule works until next year's session.

Sen. C. Anthony Muse, the caucus member who sponsored the bill, argued that it served poor defendants by giving them cash bail as an alternative to costly forms of pretrial release, such as ankle monitoring devices. The Prince George's County Democrat urged colleagues to let the measure proceed.

Nicholas J. Wachinski, a spokesman for the bail bond industry, said that even though the caucus is "an important voice in the Maryland legislature," supporters of the bill are not giving up.

"We have as an industry a legitimate concern that there will be fees imposed on indigent Marylanders that are equal to or exceed the cost of bail," said Wachinski, chief executive of Lexington National Insurance. "Because the bail industry supports this bill, the value of this bill is completely disregarded."

The industry objected to a provision of the Court of Appeals rule that diminished the role of cash bail in pretrial release. "Preference should be given to additional conditions without financial terms," the rule reads.

The Senate bill would supersede that provision and put cash bail on a par with other conditions, which include steps such as drug treatment, monitoring and home detention.

The bill is now bottled up in the House Rules & Executive Nominations Committee because the Senate passed it after a legislative deadline. Opponents want the speaker to keep it there, and the caucus action bolsters their case. Members of black caucus make up about 40 percent of Democrats in the House.

The lawmaker who chairs the rules committee said she received the caucus' message.

"They have a lot at stake and their position carries a lot of weight with the whole legislature and certainly with me," said Del. Anne Healey, a Prince George's County Democrat.

Busch, an Anne Arundel County Democrat, said he would consult with the chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, Prince George's County Democrat Joseph F. Vallario Jr., before deciding whether the bill will move forward.

"The black caucus certainly has an effect on the bill — whether it stays in Rules or goes to committee," Busch said.

Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller said the bill's advancement wasn't up to the black caucus.

"It's whatever the speaker decides," the Calvert County Democrat said. "We felt strongly it's a good bill, and whatever the House and the speaker decides is fine with me."

The Senate bill prevailed in that chamber, 29-18, with solid support from Republicans. A majority of Democrats opposed it. If Busch were to let the bill come to the floor, he would face the likelihood of a similar split. While Busch has not taken a public position on the bill, he has shown no enthusiasm for taking on the issue.

Del. Kathleen Dumais, a leading House opponent of the Senate bill, said that if the bill came to a House vote there would be "a very long, ugly debate." The Montgomery County Democrat, vice chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, said that even if the bill comes to her panel, there might not be enough votes to bring it to the floor.

The impact of the caucus vote was clear in the comparison of scenes before and after the caucus met in the House office building. Before the meeting, lobbyists for the bail bond industry were out in force. After the vote, they had dispersed.

Dumais said there still would be a role for cash bail — though perhaps diminished — under the court rule.

"If [release] conditions are necessary, bail might be one of the conditions," she said.

Meanwhile, Attorney General Brian E. Frosh and Anderson hugged each other in celebration of the vote. Frosh, a Democrat, helped energize the movement that led to the Court of Appeals rule when he issued an opinion last year saying the court would likely find it unconstitutional to hold defendants on cash bail they could not afford. Anderson, a Baltimore Democrat, swung from sponsoring a bill supported by the industry to opposing its Senate version at the caucus meeting.

Caryn York, who led the coalition that fought the Senate bill, said the vote "would send a strong signal to the leadership" of the House. But she warned that there still were moves that proponents could make to revive the legislation.

"This is Annapolis. Anything can happen," she said.

mdresser@baltsun.com

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