By SCOTT SHEWFELT, Capital News Service
ANNAPOLIS - The House Judiciary Committee heard testimony from prosecutors, legislators, police officers and citizens Tuesday, on why a conspiracy statute often reserved for the Mafia is a necessary weapon in the legal battle against the growing problem of gangs throughout the state.
"The gangs we are talking about aren't the Jets and the Sharks from West Side Story," said Delegate B. Daniel Riley, D-Harford.
"A lot of people think we don't have gangs in Western Maryland or on the Eastern Shore, but we do," said Queen Anne's County State's Attorney Frank M. Kratovil Jr.
The Maryland Gang Prosecution Act of 2007 is inspired by the federal Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act, better known as the RICO statutes. More than 30 states already use RICO laws, said Maryland Attorney General Doug Gansler.
While inspired by RICO, the proposed gang law diverges in that it does not allow prosecutors to seize gang assets. The gangs in Maryland don't have huge amounts of money, Gansler said, but added that he would support "a full RICO bill" for the state. The penalties outlined in the bill are a maximum of 30 years and a fine of $100,000.
The federal RICO statute has been used in Maryland to prosecute members of the gang Mara Salvatrucha or MS-13, and also to convict (later overturned) former Gov. Martin Mandel.
The proposed legislation targets "a certain pattern"—in this case, two crimes—of criminal gang activity, prosecutors said.
"We'll go after the shooter as well as those calling the shots," said Delegate Mary-Dulaney James, D-Harford.
The bill would allow state's attorneys to prosecute gang members as a gang rather than individuals, said House Speaker Michael E. Busch, D-Anne Arundel, adding it also allows the attorney general to step in if the state's attorneys don't have the resources.
"This is not an easy law for the prosecution to prove," said Kratovil, adding that proving a kingpin had knowledge of a crime committed by a low-level gang member is still going to be tough. The laws won't make it any easier to get testimony, he said.
Committee member Delegate Luiz Simmons, D-Montgomery, said the actual numbers of gang crimes don't seem to add up to a growing problem. He said he wants to give prosecutors all the tools they need, but doesn't want to subject citizens to unnecessary fears.
"We're behind the curve," admitted Kratovil. "We don't have all the information and we need to do better."
Kratovil cited the importance of a database program called GangNet as an important tracking device of partial identifiers, like tattoos making it easier to identify a gang member.
The database, which is being implemented in Maryland in conjunction with Virginia and the District of Columbia, should be off the ground in June, said Rick Weaver of the Washington-Baltimore High Intensity Drug Trafficking Area.
"The more information we have, the easier the prosecution," said Gansler.
Different agencies have different definitions of what a gang is, said Montgomery County State's Attorney John McCarthy.
"You have to be part of the crime," said Gansler.
"If all that happened was that someone was coerced into a gang, it's never going to be a problem," McCarthy said.
The Senate will hear its version of the bill today.