The Maryland Senate unanimously approved a bill yesterday that would expunge the police records of people who are arrested but not charged with a crime.
Supporters said the measure, championed by Baltimore Del. Keith E. Haynes, will help thousands of citizens clear their names and by extension their paths to securing mortgages, jobs and other financial assistance, matters that could have been impeded by a criminal history.
"I think the bill is important because at the end of the day, it provides justice for individuals who have gotten caught up in the arrest system," Haynes, a Democrat, said.
Stephen J. Kearney, a spokesman for Gov. Martin O'Malley, said yesterday that the governor will sign the bill, which has passed the House of Delegates.
Last year, 21,000 people were arrested but not charged statewide; 16,000 of those arrests were in Baltimore.
The proposal is not retroactive. All those who were arrested before Oct. 1 of this year would still have to file a request with the law enforcement unit believed to have a police record in their name.
Last month, the House overwhelmingly approved the bill, 130-9, with those few opposed arguing that the proposal would hamper law enforcement efforts and that the police sometimes make honest mistakes.
House Minority Leader Anthony J. O'Donnell, who voted against the bill in that chamber, said the proposal covers up a failed prosecutorial system.
"The bill had good intentions, and I understand that, but I also think that it potentially masks the failure to aggressively prosecute the drug culture in Baltimore City," said O'Donnell, a Republican from Southern Maryland. "And so the bill will help some people who probably were legitimately wronged but will also serve to let some people erase a record that maybe shouldn't be erased."
The measure, which would go into effect Oct. 1, requires the immediate expunging of all police records, including photographs and fingerprints, for people who are arrested but not charged with a crime. Those people would not be required to pay any related fees or costs to process the changes.
Under current law, individuals have to waive their right to sue before they can appeal for their records to be cleansed, or else wait three years until the statute of limitations for legal action expires. But the General Assembly's proposal indicates that those arrested after the bill becomes law will not have to waive the right to sue.
Sterling Clifford, spokesman for Baltimore Mayor Sheila Dixon, said the mayor supports the goal of the legislation but is concerned about the legal implications. If the governor signs the bill, Clifford said, Dixon would like to see the matter addressed by the General Assembly in the future.
"This specific bill doesn't address the liability issue," Clifford said. "Obviously, given the size of the Baltimore Police Department, she has some concerns about that."
The Fraternal Order of Police originally objected to the proposal but backed off. Spokesman Frank Boston said the FOP decided not to spend much of the group's political capital fighting the bill.
Debate on this proposal has been influenced by a practice, common in Baltimore, of arresting people for routine violations and then not charging them. In the fall campaign, Republican Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. alleged that O'Malley, as mayor of Baltimore, encouraged the unwarranted arrests of thousands of city residents, primarily African-Americans.
A spokeswoman for the American Civil Liberties Union of Maryland hailed the bill but said more needs to be done to address the problem of arrests without cause, especially in the city.
"Of course, the bill does not address the very serious and continuing problem of illegal arrests in Baltimore City," said Meredith Curtis of the ACLU, "but it is an important and common-sense reform that will bring some measure of basic justice to thousands of people."
The Senate's debate was extensive yesterday, and lawmakers laughed when they looked up on the voting board to find all members in support of the bill. Several senators, when they learned of law enforcement's broad support for the legislation, signed on.
Sen. Larry E. Haines, a Republican who represents Baltimore and Carroll counties, said he supported the bill because it will help people "who have had some hard times." An arrest record can prevent many otherwise able people from entering the work force, he said.
"It's not only a barrier to employment," Haines said. "It's also a barrier regarding your credit. Your ability to be able to get a loan. Your ability ... to get a mortgage, to buy a house."
Sen. Alex X. Mooney, a Frederick Republican who was eventually swayed by the Senate debate, initially asked his colleagues to consider the perspective of the police.
"Someone has to stand up for the police here," Mooney said. "The police are trying to do their job."
But Mooney was persuaded to change his vote largely by the testimony of Sen. James N. Robey, a Howard County Democrat who served as a police officer for 32 years.
"This is not a bad bill from a law enforcement perspective," Robey said. "It is simply a matter of fairness."
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