By KATE ELIZABETH QUERAM, Capital News Service
ANNAPOLIS (March 21, 2008) - When a noose was found hanging outside of the Nyumburu Cultural Center on the University of Maryland's College Park campus in September, police classified it as a hate crime but never named - or found - a suspect.
It might not have mattered if they had.
Current law does not specifically list hanging a noose as a crime. The No Nooses Act attempts to change that by adding the hanging of a noose to a list of actions already specifically identified as crimes, including the burning of objects and the defacing of property.
The legislation "creates a whole separate crime," said Delegate Victor Ramirez, D-Prince George's, one of the bill's four sponsors.
If someone places a "symbol of intimidation" on public or private property without express permission of the owner, he or she can be punished with up to three years in jail or a maximum $5,000 fine, said Delegate Saqib Ali, D-Montgomery, another sponsor.
"The noose is the premier symbol of hatred now," Ali said. "People don't burn crosses anymore, but our laws don't address that."
Current law protects against the destruction of property, like burning a cross or spray-painting a swastika, but since nooses don't technically deface or destroy anything, their placement is considered on a case-by-case basis.
"It's very subjective," said Paul Dillon, spokesman for the University of Maryland Department of Public Safety, which handled the College Park incident. The department investigates things like the noose-hanging, determines if they can be classified as hate crimes, and then turns the cases over to the state's attorney, who decides whether or not to prosecute.
The No Nooses Act doesn't change that - the placement of the nooses still has to be done with "intention to intimidate or threaten" - but it does add hanging nooses to the list of actions that can be considered crimes.
Ali said the bill sprang from racially-charged incidents, including the noose at College Park and events in Jena, La., where six black teenagers were charged with attempted murder in the beating of a white teenager after nooses were found hanging from a schoolyard tree.
"It troubled me a great deal that kids in a school could be intimidated by a noose," Ali said. "I thought we should do something here in Maryland."
The bill passed the House by a vote of 113 to 20. It has not yet been heard in the Senate, but Ramirez said he thought it would see action early next week and that he's comfortable with its chances.
"It sends a message saying, enough is enough," he said. "It's not a joke, and it's not going to be tolerated in the state of Maryland."