Bill would allow cameras in state's criminal courts

THE BALTIMORE SUN

For the second consecutive year, state lawmakers will consider allowing cameras in Maryland's criminal courts.

House Bill 609, introduced Friday, would reverse a 14-year-old decision by the General Assembly barring cameras and other recording devices from criminal courtrooms.

A repeal measure passed in the Senate last year, but was defeated in the House Judiciary Committee by one vote. This year's effort, however, is given a greater chance of passage because it is co-sponsored by the Judiciary Committee chairman, Del. Joseph F. Vallario Jr., a Prince George's Democrat.

Under the bill, both the prosecution and the defense would have to concur in writing at least 30 days before a hearing to allow cameras -- including television cameras -- in the courtroom, said the lead sponsor, Del. Gilbert J. Genn, a Montgomery County Democrat. Victims, witnesses and jurors also could ask to be excluded from the transmission, he said.

If approved, the bill would make Maryland the 42nd state to televise criminal trials. The courts already have opened their doors to cameras in civil cases.

Bill calls for counseling before a divorce

A Western Maryland lawmaker wants to require couples to try marital counseling before seeking a divorce.

"People might reconsider what they are doing and the effects it can have on the children they've brought into the world," said Sen. John J. Hafer, an Allegany County Republican.

Under his proposal, Senate Bill 96, couples would have to show they had gone through counseling before filing for divorce. If they had children, the children would have to be involved in the counseling as well.

Mr. Hafer introduced similar legislation unsuccessfully last year. The Senate Judicial Proceedings Committee will hold a hearing on the bill at 1 p.m. today.

Some want to make it harder to seize cars

Some lawmakers want to make it harder for police and prosecutors to take away the cars of suspected drug users and dealers.

The sponsors of House Bill 74 and Senate Bill 112 asked the House Judiciary and Senate Judicial Proceedings committees last week to allow car owners to seek an immediate court review of drug-related forfeiture cases.

State law allows police and prosecutors to seize a car or truck if they believe it was used -- or even intended to be used -- to store or move illegal drugs. The owner, who does not have to be charged criminally, may be without his car for four to six months awaiting the forfeiture case to come to trial, said Del. John S. Arnick, a Baltimore County Democrat and co-sponsor of the proposal.

Trevor Kiessling, an assistant state's attorney for Anne Arundel County, said the bills could create loopholes in the law that would weaken forfeiture as an alternative to fines and jail.

Similar legislation passed the General Assembly last year but was vetoed by then-Gov. William Donald Schaefer.

Verdict questioned in child abuse cases

Advocates for children want to prohibit judges from granting probation before judgment to a person charged with sexually abusing a child.

Supporters of Senate Bill 93 told the Judicial Proceedings Committee last week that a "PBJ verdict" prevents the charge from appearing in criminal background checks, such as those conducted for day-care providers.

The Maryland Bar Association opposes the bill because it "ties the hands of judges," said spokesman Albert Winchester III. "You have to give them the ability to determine the facts of a case and make a judgment."

The bill is supported by, among other groups, the Maryland Commission for Women, the American Academy of Pediatrics and several chapters of the YWCA.

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