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Law against mass violence threats debated

When a judge dismissed the case against a Crofton man accused of making mass-violence threats against co-workers, the losing prosecutors didn't criticize the judge's decision, defense attorneys or even Neil Edwin Prescott, the suspect who walked free.

Prince George's County State's Attorney Angela D. Alsobrooks blamed Maryland law. If she had the right "tools," a law that explicitly prohibits people from making mass-violence threats, the result might have been different, she said.

A week after last year's mass shooting in a Colorado movie theater, prosecutors said Prescott told a co-worker over the phone that he wanted to blow up everyone at a Capitol Heights mail supply company and wished to see the brains of a supervisor "splattered all over the sidewalk." Investigators found more than two dozen weapons and a large cache of ammunition at his home.

Prescott was held at a mental health facility while police and prosecutors determined what to charge him with. He had no criminal history aside from a traffic offense and owned the guns legally.

Free speech is protected by the First Amendment, and there is no law against making mass-violence threats in Maryland, so prosecutors charged him with one count of misusing a telephone, a misdemeanor that carries up to three years in prison and a $500 fine. At the time, Alsobrooks said she believed the charge was "insufficient," but she didn't have the evidence to charge Prescott with anything else.

With Prescott's case serving as an example, Alsobrooks lobbied legislators to create a law that would make such threats illegal. In an era of mass shootings and terrorism, both she and Prince George's County Police Chief Mark Magaw felt such a law would help them prevent violence.

State Del. Kriselda Valderrama, a Prince George's County Democrat, sponsored a bill that prohibited anyone from "knowingly threatening to commit a crime of violence" that made five or more people afraid and caused emergency precautions such as evacuations or emergency sheltering. The proposed misdemeanor would carry a maximum 10-year sentence and a fine up to $10,000.

The bill passed the House of Delegates but died in the Senate. Del. Kathleen M. Dumais, a Montgomery County Democrat who supported the measure, said the bill became a pawn in last-minute negotiations between the Senate and House over other measures.

"I think it was a very important bill," she said. "Unfortunately, we're seeing these kind of things more and more where people are making these kind of threats, and I was disappointed it was tangled up in politics."

Dumais expects to see a similar bill drafted next year, and Alsobrooks said she will continue to push for one.

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