Proposed legislation to grant the Maryland attorney general’s Independent Investigations Division prosecutorial power received preliminary approval in the Maryland Senate on Tuesday.
The chamber debated for nearly 90 minutes about Senate Bill 290, sponsored by Judicial Proceedings Chair William C. Smith Jr. (D-Montgomery), which would give the investigative division exclusive authority to prosecute police-involved deaths.
The unit currently investigates police interactions that result in death or injuries likely to cause the death of a civilian. Their findings are reported to local prosecutors for any further action.
The legislation would allow the attorney general to empower a local state’s attorney to prosecute cases. The bill also seeks to change “civilian” to “individual.”
The proposal would also give the division authority to investigate any crime related to police misconduct that’s discovered during an investigation. It also would allow a state’s attorney to refer a police-involved incident resulting in injury to the division for investigation and would allow the attorney general, based on findings, to prosecute.
Lawmakers added amendments to the bill that would require the division to present an annual report by Jan. 31 of each year to the governor and General Assembly on the number investigations conducted and prosecutions initiated.
Attorney General Anthony Brown (D) inherited the investigations division after the legislature established it during a series of police reforms passed two years ago.
Senate Minority Leader Stephen Hershey Jr. (R-Upper Shore) asked Smith why his bill was necessary, especially with elected local state’s attorneys that have experience prosecuting criminal cases. In addition, the Maryland State’s Attorneys’ Association doesn’t support the measure.
“There’s an inherent conflict” when prosecutors are faced with investigating and charging law enforcement officers they might regularly work with, Smith said. “…We’re closing the loop on this reform, decoupling this process and getting rid of the conflict that’s inherent in the in the current system.”
Two Republicans offered amendments but those were rejected.
Sen. Chris West (R-Baltimore County) offered a slightly more than two-page amendment that would have allowed local state’s attorneys to decide first whether to prosecute a case, and allow the attorney general to prosecuted under certain circumstances.
Smith said the amendment would create “confusion, tension and frustrates the purpose” of criminal justice reform.
Minority Whip Justin Ready (R-Carroll) disagreed.
“This is actually an extraordinarily good compromise to deal with what doesn’t seem to be a widespread problem, but it’s a priority for the attorney general,” he said. “I look forward to this kind of dedication to figuring out how we can better prosecute more criminals.”
The Democratic majority voted 30-17 to reject the amendment. Democratic Sens. Sarah Elfreth (Anne Arundel) and Katie Fry Hester (Howard) joined the 15 Republican senators in support of it.
A closer vote of 29-18 was recorded on an amendment by Hershey that would have required the attorney general to appoint a director of the investigations division, subject to Senate confirmation. Besides the 15 Republicans, Elfreth and Hester, two other Democrats supported the measure: Sens. Clarence Lam (Howard) and Dawn Gile (Anne Arundel).
The Senate could give final approval to the bill on Wednesday, sending the measure to the House of Delegates.
A House version of the legislation – House Bill 857 – was being heard Tuesday by the Judiciary Committee.