The Maryland Senate passed a bill Thursday that would remove county state’s attorneys’ prosecutorial power in cases where police officers kill civilians.
Under Senate Bill 290, the statewide attorney general’s office would have the power to prosecute officers in cases of deadly force instead of Maryland’s 24 locally elected state’s attorneys.
New policing regulations passed in the 2021 legislative session created an Independent Investigations Division in the Maryland Attorney General’s Office. It investigates all police deaths, but final decisions about charging are the purview of county prosecutors.
New Attorney General Anthony Brown, a Democrat, has argued in favor of the new legislation. He supports the premise that it would increase trust between communities and local law enforcement and eliminate situations where there could be a perception that prosecutors were biased or had a conflict of interest.
Baltimore County Republican Sen. Chris West said that the bill would create its own conflicts of interest because the attorney general would prosecute cases based on investigations performed by his office.
State’s attorneys on both sides of the political aisle oppose the bill on the grounds that they are elected by the voters, so removing prosecutorial power from their offices would disrupt the public’s trust.
Republican legislators have stood with them. Senate Minority Whip Justin Ready of Carroll County called the bill “a mistake” and said the General Assembly should focus on bills that stem violent crime.
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“The best kind of legislation solves a problem,” Ready said Thursday on the floor. “I can’t, for the life of me, figure out what is the problem we’re trying to solve here. There’s not some widespread issue of state’s attorneys found to be dismissing cases that are not founded, there hasn’t been some widespread scandal — or scandal, really, of any kind, involving a state’s attorney supposedly not pursuing something because of a personal relationship.
“This makes no sense,” Ready continued.
Senate Judicial Proceedings Committee Chair Will Smith, the bill’s sponsor, said that “one need only walk through any marginalized or underinvested community in our state to understand the problem.”
“Don’t let anyone tell you that accountability is mutually exclusive of public safety,” the Montgomery County Democrat said. “In fact, we all know that they’re co-dependent, and that’s exactly what this bill seeks to do — to restore that relationship, restore that trust, so that communities can work with law enforcement and public safety officials to make sure that we’re all safer.”
The Senate passed the bill, 27-20.
The House Judiciary Committee held a hearing on the legislation earlier in the week.
Baltimore Sun reporter Lee O. Sanderlin contributed to this article.