Some state lawmakers questioned yesterday whether a proposal to bolster the powers of prosecutors to pursue violent gang members was necessary and voiced fears that it would unfairly target people who hadn't committed crimes.
The bill would allow local prosecutors to lay out evidence at trial that a crime was ordered or planned by gang leaders.
For instance, in a murder case, not only the shooter but also the gang leaders "who called the shots" could face charges of promoting gang-related criminal activity, in addition to charges of solicitation to commit murder or conspiracy, said Queen Anne's County State's Attorney Frank M. Kratovil Jr., who is president of the Maryland State's Attorney's Association.
The accomplices could receive a maximum penalty of 30 years in prison and a $100,000 fine if convicted of the gang-specific charge.
"What this does is make the crime more serious if it's being committed in furtherance of a gang's goals than if it's being done simply because the person is low on cash," Kratovil said.
The bill also would enable Attorney General Douglas F. Gansler, who proposed the legislation, to participate in or prosecute these cases as long as he obtains permission from local prosecutors. That change would expand the attorney general's investigative powers, which are mostly focused on white-collar and environmental crimes, into the public-safety arena.
The proposal is similar to the federal racketeering statute, the Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act, or RICO, a law that gave federal prosecutors wide latitude to target the Mafia and has since been applied to drug kingpins and corrupt politicians.
But typically, only the most heinous of gang-related enterprises are prosecuted in federal court under RICO. As a result, numerous states have passed "mini-RICOs" to make it easier to bring down lesser-known gangs, whose members are committing numerous robberies and auto thefts, for instance.
Baltimore State's Attorney Patricia C. Jessamy said yesterday, however, that the bill was not strong enough to make a dent in the city's gang problem. RICO, for instance, allows federal authorities to take any assets - houses, boats, cars - that convicted mob bosses obtained from their criminal activities. Such powers are not included in the attorney general's proposal.
"They watered down and really gutted the bill," said Jessamy, who is supporting competing legislation while also trying to toughen Gansler's proposal, which was introduced by House Speaker Michael E. Busch.
Compromises were made in crafting the legislation in response to concerns from committee members.
House Judiciary Committee Chairman Joseph F. Vallario Jr. and Del. Luiz R.S. Simmons asked why prosecutors couldn't go after a gang hierarchy under existing conspiracy and aiding-and-abetting laws.
Kratovil responded that the gang provision is "broader" than current conspiracy laws. Gansler said that if 20 leaders of the violent Salvadoran gang MS-13 order 10 recruits to rape someone as an initiation rite, the bill would make it easier to go after those 20 leaders. In addition, the prosecutors could bring the gang members before the same judge in a consolidated case.
Still, Kratovil and Gansler tried to assure the committee that the proposal was not an open door for prosecutors to go after gang members simply because of their associations. Under the proposal, prosecutors would still have to meet several standards, including proof that the suspects were engaged in a pattern of criminal gang activity and had a name, sign or symbol in common.
Simmons said to Gansler: "I would hope you don't embark on a crusade to put people in jail because of the color that they wear."