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Politics

Child marriage, interrogation of minors, gun storage security among topics of new laws in effect Saturday

Protecting children, reducing high-speed highway crashes and preventing gun theft are some of the aims of hundreds of new Maryland state laws going into effect Saturday.

Maryland lawmakers and Gov. Larry Hogan ushered 783 bills from start to finish during the General Assembly’s 90-day session earlier this year. Many of those bills went into effect immediately or during the summer.

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Hundreds more were scheduled to officially kick-in Saturday, including an expansion of the state’s “move over” law, new security requirements for gun shop owners and a law that no longer allows 15- and 16-year-olds to marry.

Here’s a glimpse at those measures and more.

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Banning some child marriage

Advocates against child marriage had tried for years to raise Maryland’s minimum marrying age of 15.

“This change was long overdue to protect Maryland’s children and to end the state’s reputation as a destination for child marriage,” said the Tahirih Justice Center, a national nonprofit organization seeking to eliminate child marriage, in a statement after the bill’s passage.

The new law raises the age to 17, allowing a 17-year-old to marry only if each living parent or guardian gives consent or, in the case of a female, if she is pregnant or has given birth.

Some advocates said those provisions were “loopholes” that allow an outdated and potentially dangerous practice of forced marriage to continue.

Del. Vanessa Atterbeary, a Howard County Democrat who was the bill’s prime sponsor, said it was a compromise after fighting for the last seven sessions.

Atterbeary said she still hopes to raise the minimum age to 18, but she and others were able to work in “significant safeguards” for those who are 17. Beyond parental consent or pregnancy, a judge must decide that marrying is in the best interest of the child. The child also must be the one to petition the court — rather than a parent or guardian — and they must be provided information on human trafficking and their legal rights.

“We are not going to become a destination for child brides, thank goodness, with the passage of this legislation,” Atterbeary said.

According to Unchained At Last, a nonprofit focused on ending child marriage that opposed the compromise bill, more than 3,500 children were married in Maryland from 2000-19.

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Maryland law enforcement officers now must contact parents and an attorney before interrogating children or teenagers. It's one of many new laws that started statewide Oct. 1.

Childhood Interrogation Protection Act

Another major change involving minors will require law enforcement officers to contact parents and an attorney before interrogating children or teenagers.

A police officer’s failure to make those contacts could make any statements by a child inadmissible in court.

The ACLU of Maryland applauded the new law, citing statistics that show 90% of children waive their rights in such situations and that the percentage of children who make false confessions is three times higher than those of all age groups. The protections are essential for Black children who are disproportionately represented in the justice system, the group said.

“This new law will make a difference because every day in Maryland, children entangled in the legal justice system have been questioned without a parent, guardian, or attorney present,” said Yanet Amanuel, public policy director for the ACLU of Maryland, in a statement. “But no longer should children have to endure the injustice of facing criminal charges, prosecution, and incarceration without their basic due process rights protected.”

The bill was one of several that Hogan vetoed but the supermajority Democratic-controlled General Assembly overturned.

Notifying parents and recording the interrogations of children are positive steps, but mandating a consultation with an attorney “will effectively eliminate the ability for law enforcement to interrogate a youth,” Hogan wrote in his veto letter.

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“At a time where the public is concerned about increases in juvenile crime, this bill removes a crucial tool from the toolbox in the investigation of criminal activity and the administration of justice,” the governor wrote.

Devrin Bowling of Owings Mills, and daughter Emory in 2020 looking at a display of pistols at Maryland Elite Firearms. Maryland gun shop owners must strengthen the security of their shops as of Oct. 1 under a new state law written to reduce gun thefts, especially when the businesses are closed.

Security for firearms dealers

Firearms dealers are required to bolster their security provisions starting Saturday under a new law intended to prevent gun theft.

Under the new rules, licensed dealers must store firearms in a vault, safe or other secure method outside of normal business hours or beef up security measures for the building. Those include a burglary alarm system, video surveillance, protections on doors and windows, such as metal doors or bars, and, when necessary, physical barriers to prevent a vehicle from breaching the building.

Hogan, whose veto of this bill was overturned, wrote in his veto letter that the change creates a “one — size — fits — all policy, and fails to take into account the fact that some of these businesses are not big box stores and may be operated out of one’s home, where physical security features may not be able to be installed.”

There were 404 active regulated firearms dealers in Maryland as of Sept. 29.

Maryland State Police spokeswoman Elena Russo said state police staff personally contacted each dealer for compliance and all but three were in compliance as of Thursday.

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In 2021, 152 firearms were stolen or lost by licensed dealers in the state, according to the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives.

‘Move over’ law expansion

Drivers must change lanes or slow down to avoid close calls with any stopped vehicle showing warning signals under an expansion of the state’s “move over” law.

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Moving over on the highway has been required when driving past tow trucks, police cars and ambulances that had stopped and were showing flashing lights.

“Moving over, or slowing down, isn’t much to ask to help keep everyone safe on our roadways,” Maryland Transportation Secretary Jim Ports said at a news conference Thursday in front of an enlarged photo of an SUV that had crashed into an MDOT emergency vehicle.

The emergency response technician who had driven the vehicle in the photo, Richard Reeves, said it was just two weeks ago when he was standing next to his vehicle at 3:45 a.m. on Interstate 83 near the Baltimore City-county line when the crash occurred.

He acknowledged the new law may not have stopped his crash but said it will prevent others.

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“This same situation can happen to anybody, whether it’s an impaired driver, a distracted driver, someone that’s simply reaching into their passenger seat to grab an item,” Reeves said. “While ‘move over, slow down’ might sound like just another law, it’s not. It’s a life saver.”

The penalties for not following the new law are a potential $110 fine and a point on the motorist’s driver’s license. It increases to a $150 fine and three license points if the motorist causes a crash, and a $750 fine if it leads to a serious injury or death.

Other new laws

Additional laws in effect as of Saturday include:

  • A modernization to the legal definition of “stalking” to include not just physical pursuit but also electronic means, such as spyware or tracking apps on cellphones or the use of GPS locators on cars. The change brings “the law in line with the forms of stalking that are most widely used today,” according to the Women’s Law Center of Maryland.
  • A law to prevent the firing of county health officers except for cause. The protections were inspired by public backlash against some local health officials during the COVID-19 pandemic.
  • A measure to extend collective bargaining rights to attorneys and others who work in the Office of the Public Defender.

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