Amid the hundreds of bills approved by Maryland's legislature during its 90-day session is one making it illegal for police officers to have sex with people in their custody.
Baltimore Del. Brooke Lierman proposed the measure — which passed both the Senate and House of Delegates unanimously — after the U.S. Justice Department's investigation of the Baltimore Police Department noted complaints that officers were pressuring people in their custody for sex.
The bill would impose a maximum three-year prison sentence and a $3,000 fine on officers who violate the statute. The bill is now on Gov. Larry Hogan's desk for possible signature.
The legislation follows a similar ban in New York, where lawmakers were spurred to action by a high-profile case in which two police officers there were accused of sexual misconduct.
"A law enforcement officer may not engage in sexual contact, vaginal intercourse or a sexual act with a person in the custody of the law enforcement officer," Lierman's legislation states.
"I have been shocked at the number of women and organizations serving women who have come forward to tell me they have clients who have experienced this," said Lierman, a Democrat. "It's galling. It's horrible."
Lierman said the Department of Justice investigation underscored a need for tougher laws.
"We heard complaints from the community that some officers target members of a vulnerable population—people involved in the sex trade—to coerce sexual favors from them in exchange for avoiding arrest, or for cash or narcotics," the federal report stated. "This conduct is not only criminal, it is an abuse of power. Unfortunately, we not only found evidence of this conduct in BPD's internal affairs files, it appeared that the Department failed to adequately investigate allegations of such conduct, allowing it to recur."
While existing laws — such as misconduct in office, sex offenses and extortion — are already on the books, Lierman said the new legislation will bolster people's cases who report police misconduct. If police officers try to argue the sex was consensual, the new law will make it clear the conduct is still illegal, Lierman said.
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"Because you're in custody, you can never give true consent," Lierman said. "We should be holding people in law enforcement accountable."
Jacqueline Robarge, who runs the non-profit Power Inside, said more than 100 women have reported sexual abuse by police to her.
"It's not at all uncommon for it to be the same police officers," she said. "It kind of frightens me when I think about the magnitude of it."
Robarge called the bill a "first step toward acknowledging the issue."
"We don't think this ends here," she said.