By LIZ FARMER, Capital News Service
ANNAPOLIS - The Senate unanimously passed and sent to the governor Tuesday legislation that will automatically expunge the police records of those who are arrested but never charged with a crime. The measure is designed to help people who are prevented by these arrests from getting jobs or credit.
"People need to need to be able to get good jobs and be able to get into good schools," said Sen. Lisa A. Gladden, D-Baltimore, quoting a letter she had received from a constituent. The letter, she said was written with a pencil and notebook paper, and postmarked from the Baltimore City Detention Center.
"This bill is about protecting the rights of people who are arrested and not charged," she said.
The legislation has already passed the House of Delegates and goes to Gov. Martin O'Malley's desk for his signature. According to Rick Abbruzzese, a spokesman for the governor, O'Malley supports the legislation and anticipates signing it into law.
Supporters of the bill say that the high number of arrests without accompanying charges has been a controversial issue statewide, but most notably in Baltimore. Sen. Thomas M. Middleton, D-Charles, said that people can be arrested simply for being an observer in the wrong place at the wrong time. The person may be released after his or her involvement is cleared, but the arrest can still damage a person's record during background checks.
"This could happen to any one of us," he said.
Approximately 21,000 people were arrested and released without charge in Maryland in 2006, according to the Maryland Criminal Justice Information System.
Current law says that people have to file a petition to have their records expunged, and petitioners have to sign a waiver giving up their right to sue police. The bill eliminates the need for the waiver and requires law enforcement to expunge police records - including fingerprints and photographs - for an arrest not resulting in charges within 60 days of release.
During the Senate debate, Sen. Alex X. Mooney, R-Frederick, spoke at some length expressing his reservations about the bill, and said that someone had to stand up for policemen who are only trying to do their jobs enforcing the law.
"I guess I kind of resent the implications of this bill that the police are abusing their authority wholesale, all the time," he said.
However, Sen. James N. Robey, D-Howard, a 32-year veteran in law enforcement, responded in support of the bill and said that the issue was simply a matter of fairness.
"From time to time, police officers - and yours truly - make mistakes," he said.
A round of chuckles went through the Senate chamber when the green light of approval appeared by Mooney's name during the final vote on the bill. Robey's endorsement "meant a lot" to him, he said, even though he didn't believe the legislation got at the core of the crime problem in Baltimore. Assuming O'Malley's approval, the legislation will go into effect in October this year. If an eligible individual's record is not expunged within 60 days, that person may sue and seek reimbursements for legal expenses. After Oct. 1, people who were arrested without charges before the law went into effect can request an expungement and do not have to file the law suit waiver.