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Legislative notes: Some highlights from a busy day in Annapolis

Del. Cheryl Pasteur speaks at a press conference March 15, 2024, as a sponsor of legislation to allow those incarcerated to petition the court to reduce or modify a sentence if a person has served at least 20 years. Photo by William J. Ford.

The state Senate and the House of Delegates held double floor sessions and several committee meetings Friday and churned through scores of bills. It was all part of the rush before Monday’s “crossover day” — the deadline for bill to pass out of one chamber of the legislature to guarantee consideration in the other chamber.

Here are a few highlights:

The legislature is moving closer to adopting a bill that would enable fair housing inspectors to use electronic surveillance devices to catch bad actors in the real estate and apartment rental industries.

The measure, Senate Bill 57 and House Bill 392, would establish that it is lawful for a person to intercept a wire, oral, or electronic communication if the person is working as a fair housing tester for a program operated by the federal, state or local government or a nonprofit civil rights organization that has a government contract to do fair housing work.

Significantly, the bill would waive the state’s “two-party consent” requirement for recording a conversation or other interaction. Some states don’t have a requirement that both parties need to agree to record a conversation, but in Maryland — except in the cases of some law enforcement actions — two parties need to consent.

The idea is to catch rental or housing agents discriminating against people of color or other protected classes of people under the law.

During a debate on the Senate floor Friday, Minority Leader Justin Ready (R-Carroll and Frederick) said he saw the proposed waiver as “a pretty big loophole.”

“That’s a little troubling to me,” he said. “It’s troubling that I could surreptitiously or secretly be recorded.”

But the bill sponsor and floor leader, Sen. Charles E. Sydnor III (D-Baltimore County), asserted that his legislation “is not a large loophole [in the two-party consent law]. It’s something that’s been narrowly tailored.”

Sydnor said he was inspired to introduce the legislation from his time as a volunteer fair housing inspector with a group called Baltimore Neighborhoods Inc., which received government grants to test whether real estate and rental firms were treating white customers and people of color differently. He said that write-ups of conversations between people posing as customers and real estate agents were often imprecise and hard to interpret during disciplinary proceedings.

“You would have to write down exactly what happened,” he said. “Generally folks tend to believe what they hear more than what they’ve read.”

That’s why the bill is necessary, he argued — to accurately document conversations and ensure a measure of justice.

But Ready remained skeptical.

“I have a lot of concerns about piercing the veil of the two-party consent rule,” he said.

Eventually, Ready offered two amendments — one that would have required a court order to allow fair housing inspectors to surreptitiously record people, another that would have required them to take an eight-hour training on surveillance devices that the Justice Department requires of many law enforcement officials. Both amendments were defeated — the first by a 17-26 vote, the second on a voice vote.

The Senate then gave preliminary approval to the measure. A final vote is expected on Monday.

The House version of the bill, sponsored by Del. Vaughn Stewart (D-Montgomery), has yet to be voted out of the Judiciary Committee. Vaughn said he believes the housing industry ought to be supportive of the measure.

“I also find it strange that housing providers would prefer to live in a world where their liability hinges on the faulty memories and scribbled notes of testers,” he said.

A second look advances

Juvenile justice has been a major topic during this year’s 90-day legislative session, but criminal justice reform advocates are also pushing for bills to help those who are currently incarcerated.

Some of the perseverance helped as they sat in the Senate Judicial Proceedings Committee hearing room Friday to see members vote 9-2 to advance Senate Bill 123. It’s scheduled to be debated on the Senate floor Monday.

The measure sponsored by Sen. Jill P. Carter (D-Baltimore City) would enable someone who has been incarcerated for at least 20 years to file a petition to a court to reduce or modify their sentence, if at least three years have passed since the court decided any previously filed petition.

If a petition is filed, it would be done in a jurisdiction’s circuit court where the sentence was imposed.

According to a racial equity impact analysis of the bill informally called the Second Look Act, 10,700 of the nearly 15,000 incarcerated individuals in state prisons and other facilities are Black.

“This act aligns with principles of fairness, compassion, and evidence-based criminal justice practices,” Carter said during a news conference in Annapolis several hours before the committee vote. “It acknowledges that lengthy sentences do not always serve the interest of justice and may not be proportional to the offense committed.”

The House version sponsored by Del. Cheryl E. Pasteur (D-Baltimore County) remains in the Judiciary Committee.

“We sit each and every day during session and the interim and make decisions about how other people are supposed to live [and] what is supposed to be good and righteous,” said Pasteur, who spoke at Friday’s news conference. “This bill is about what we’re all supposed to be about. If folks turn their backs to this, shame on you.”

The two Judicial Proceedings members who voted against the measure were Sens. William G. Folden (R-Frederick) and Mary-Dulany James (D-Harford).

There are other powerful public figures who don’t support the measure.

Although the bill permits a state’s attorney to file a motion in court to reduce a person’s sentence, Baltimore County State’s Attorney Scott Shellenberger (D) wrote in a letter opposing the bill that it would add another post-conviction remedy that would force victims to court.

“When does it end for victims of crime? When can I look at the victim of a crime and say it is over? It never ends and this bill will add one more event over which the Victim has no control,” he wrote.

Freedom to Read passes

A part of the “decency agenda” championed by House Speaker Adrienne A. Jones (D-Baltimore County), a bill that seeks to protect library books, reading materials and other resources from censors, received final approval in the House Friday.

The 97-38 vote on the “Freedom to Read Act” was along party lines. The bill would require each county, school, regional, or resource center library to operate and adhere to certain state standards.

After a Feb. 22 bill hearing of the legislation sponsored by Del. Dana Jones (D-Anne Arundel), a few amendments were added, including one that a school library “should make its public spaces and facilities available to all students and school personnel on an equitable basis.”

If a county library system, regional resource center, or “metropolitan cooperative service program” doesn’t incorporate state standards into its policies, then the state Library Board would certify they have failed and the state comptroller could withhold funds.

The bill is part of a national conversation on what library materials can be made available in public schools and public libraries.

The House debate featured a few interesting remarks Friday, with foes of the measure suggesting that children could be corrupted.

“We as a body are allowed to say, parents, sometimes you do a crap job, but in school, we’re going to do the best we can and our children are not going to be looking or reading about not just pornography, but disgusting actions that are not healthy,” said Del. Lauren Arikan (R-Harford), an opponent. “If a child finds [pedophilia] in a school library, the message we send to the child is we approve of this message. Give me a break.”

Del. Bernice Mireku-North (D-Montgomery), who voted in support of the legislation, said the measure would ensure her child receives a diverse source of literature and other materials to read.

“This is about the fundamental need to teach our children in Maryland to read, to learn the diversity of our residents in America [and] to understand the different cultures of this state,” she said. “The Freedom to Read Act provides an appropriate level of local control…[and] protects our children from unnecessary, unconstitutional, unjust censorship.”

Quick airing for Republican abortion bills

A handful of Republican-sponsored bills tightening abortion-related regulations had their first hearing in the House Health and Government Operations committee Friday, mere days before crossover — an almost-certain sign that they are doomed to failure.

One of the bills proposed Friday, HB 276, would require Maryland to send abortion-related data to the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The bill is sponsored by Del. Robin L. Grammer Jr. (R-Baltimore County).

“Regardless of where you fall on the contentious issue that is abortion, all parties ought to want to have more data,” Jeff Trimbath, president of the Maryland Family Institute, told the committee in support of the bill.

Maryland is one of only four states that do not participate in the CDC’s abortion surveillance report, which is released every year in November.

States are encouraged, but not required, to submit data on the number of abortions and related demographic information that occur in the state. California, New Hampshire and New Jersey are the other states that do not participate.

Del. Ric Metzgar (R-Baltimore County) has introduced a bill that would require abortions be performed by a physician, rather than a “qualified provider” as in current law — a category that includes physicians, nurse practitioners, nurse-midwives, and other medical professionals.

The physician would then be prohibited from performing an abortion without determining if the fetus has a “detectible heartbeat,” defined in the bill as “cardiac activity or the repetitive rhythmic contraction of the fetal heart within the gestational sac.”

The physician would also be prohibited from performing an abortion if the physician identifies a “detectible heartbeat,” as defined in the bill.

“It is my hope that if the mother hears the heartbeat of that unborn child she will decide not to have an abortion, but rather give that child up for an adoption,” Metzgar said. “There are so many people that are looking to have a child by adoption and this could be a very helpful way to turn a negative into a positive.”

Del. Barrie S. Ciliberti (R-Frederick) offered a bill that would issue a 24-hour waiting period after a pregnant person receives a transabdominal ultrasound before a provider could perform an abortion.

Del. April Miller (R-Frederick) proposed a bill that would issue a misdemeanor penalty for coercing anyone into getting an abortion and would require providers to notify local law enforcement if they suspect a patient is a victim of sex trafficking or is being coerced to get an abortion.

Maryland’s Democratic-controlled legislature has pushed for measures that increase access to abortion in the state. Chances that the Republican-backed abortion bills will move this session are slim.

Governor’s tenants’ rights bill advances

One of Gov. Wes Moore’s housing bills is making progress in the House.

HB 693, dubbed the Tenants’ Rights and Stabilization Act of 2024, would give tenants residing in a rental property the right of first refusal if the landowner wants to sell the property. Tenants would have an opportunity to purchase the property before a third party could buy it.

HB 693 would also increase the fees that a landlord pays to issue an eviction, among other measures.

Republican delegates attempted to amend the legislation. Proposed changes included lowering the proposed eviction filing fee and adding more requirements on the tenant’s right of first refusal process.

But after an hour of discussion, all amendment efforts failed. The bill is likely to receive a final full vote on Monday, while other tenants’ rights bill are also inching forward.


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Legislative notes: Some highlights from a busy day in Annapolis