Carroll County State’s Attorney Haven Shoemaker is among 23 elected state’s attorneys in Maryland lending their voices to protest what they call an “absurd” bill aimed at “usurping” their authorities as elected prosecutors.
House Bill 857 would give the Maryland Attorney General’s Office power to prosecute police officers who kill civilians, a power that currently rests with the 24 elected state’s attorneys.
The attorney general’s Independent Investigations Division already is required by law to investigate every police-caused death and to issue a report on its findings as to whether criminal charges are possible. Those reports do not recommend charges one way or the other.
[ Read more: 3 things to know about bill that would give attorney general power to charge police officers ]
Shoemaker, a Republican who took office this year, testified with a number of other state’s attorneys Tuesday at a House Judicial Committee hearing. They strongly opposed the proposed change, saying they are more than capable of handling the prosecution of police officers who kill people, when charges are warranted.
“I think it sets a very dangerous precedent,” Shoemaker said. ”This is kind of a slippery slope because what are they going to come back and ask for next year or the year after?
“We take an oath to uphold the law and that means all the law. If a police officer breaks the law, the locally elected state’s attorneys are bound to prosecute those cases.”
Attorney General Anthony Brown told lawmakers Tuesday that his office ought to have the authority because it would increase the public’s confidence that the right decision had been made, and officers were not avoiding prosecution because of personal relationships between prosecutors and the department, or for political purposes.
“This bill is about ensuring public confidence in the prosecution decisions just like with investigations,” Brown said.
Lawmakers gave the attorney general’s office investigative authority two years ago when they passed the Police Accountability Act, and sponsors of this year’s bill have said the plan was for the office to have prosecutorial powers.
”The problem with investing that kind of power in the attorney general is that, he’s an elected official too, but he’s elected statewide,” Shoemaker said. “He does not know the local constituencies that we represent at the local level, and he doesn’t know the way in which Carroll County folks think, Carroll County juries think. He wants a one-size-fits-all approach to prosecuting police officers and I just thoroughly believe that he’s not cognizant of how that will resonate with folks at the local level.”
House Judiciary Committee Chairman Luke Clippinger, a Baltimore City Democrat, is one of the sponsors of House Bill 857. The bill is cross-filed with Senate Bill 290, which was up for debate on the chamber floor earlier Tuesday where Republicans unsuccessfully attempted to amend it. Sponsored by Senate Judicial Proceedings Committee Chair Will Smith, the Senate bill is expected to receive final approval in that chamber later this week.
Twenty-three of Maryland’s 24 state’s attorneys oppose the bill, with John McCarthy of Montgomery County abstaining from giving an opinion.
”With the authority I have, if I don’t wield that authority properly they can vote me out in four years, and that’s the way it ought to be. That’s the way it always has been up to this point,” Shoemaker said. ”The ultimate decision as to whether to prosecute a police officer should rest at the local level with the locally elected state’s attorneys, plain and simple.”
Should either bill become law, all other prosecutorial decisions in regard to police misconduct would remain with the local state’s attorney where the misconduct occurred.
Representatives from the Fraternal Order of Police and the Maryland Troopers Association also spoke against the bill. Retired Baltimore Circuit Court Chief Judge Wanda Keyes Heard also testified, urging lawmakers not to pass the bill because it would be damaging for the judicial process.
“If passed, it will place decisions about charging and prosecuting in very crucial criminal cases in untrained hands,” said Heard, who campaigned for Baltimore State’s Attorney Ivan Bates.
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While primarily focusing on civil and constitutional issues, the attorney general’s office does employ criminal prosecutors. The Organized Crime Unit, for example, prosecutes complex gang cases in the state.
The head of the Internal Investigations Division, Dana Mulhauser, worked in the Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division for 12 years and prosecuted police use-of-force cases around the country.
With the support of powerful lawmakers in both chambers, it is likely to pass. However, Baltimore County State’s Attorney Scott Shellenberger, a Democrat, seemed open to a potential compromise that would keep some power with the state’s attorneys.
Shellenberger suggested the bills be amended to give local prosecutors a right of first refusal in police-involved death cases, meaning they could decide whether to prosecute, and if they refuse, the attorney general’s office could then bring charges if it believes they are warranted.
Bates, who did not attend the hearing, also was said to be supportive of such an amendment, according to Baltimore Del. Frank Conway, who called Bates during the hearing and asked him.
“Seeing the way the vote went in the Senate, I thought a compromise would be a good idea,” Shellenberger told The Baltimore Sun afterward.
Baltimore Sun reporters Lee O. Sanderlin and Hannah Gaskill contributed to this article.