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ANNAPOLIS (Jan. 22, 2009) -- State law enforcement officials would be prohibited from spying on anyone based on their political beliefs under a bill introduced Thursday.
The bill, entitled "The Freedom of Association and Assembly Protection Act," would require authorities to have a "reasonable suspicion of criminal activity" before starting any investigation. It is designed to prevent the type of surveillance that the Maryland State Police conducted during a 14-month period in 2005 and 2006.
Ongoing inquiries by the American Civil Liberties Union of Maryland have revealed that the state police was tracking 53 activists, including two nuns. Although there was no indication that any of them was suspected of a crime, some were labeled as possible terrorists in police files.
"This is our opportunity to declare, once and for all, as a state, that this is not the way we're going to do business ever again," said Sen. Jamie Raskin, D-Montgomery.
Raskin will co-sponsor the bill with Sen. Brian Frosh, D-Montgomery, Delegate Samuel I. Rosenberg, D-Baltimore, and Montgomery delegates Sheila Hixson, Tom Hucker, and Heather Mizeur, all Democrats.
The legislation would also require that the information obtained during the 2005-06 surveillance be purged from government databases.
"Citizen activists are not terrorists. They are patriots," said Raskin, as he introduced Mike Tidwell, executive director of the Chesapeake Climate Action Network, whose name appeared on a list along with three of his staff members.
"You cannot have positive change in a democracy without average citizens speaking out and being inspired by their leaders and taking action exactly of the sort that was deemed a threat," said Tidwell.
He expressed faith in the bill.
"I am satisfied that it will be effective and that it will protect future Marylanders from this sort of police abuse," he said.
Delegate Hucker was a career activist himself before running for office and is also a member of several of the groups that were being watched.
"It really boggles the mind to know that our police were using our precious state tax dollars to do surveillance of peaceable activists," he said.
The legislation follows the recommendations of a report by former Maryland attorney general Stephen H. Sachs, who found the state police was violating federal regulations by transmitting its investigative findings to the federally funded Washington-Baltimore High Intensity Drug Trafficking Area program.
Legislators were careful not to point fingers at the state police.
"I'm sorry for the state police, who were following orders to do what they were supposed to do," said Hixson. "I think they were asked to do something that was unconstitutional and wrong."
Police spokesman Greg Shipley said that Maryland State Police Colonel Terrence B. Sheridan had already implemented new policies and procedures, and that the department stood ready to comply with any bill passed by the legislature.
"That's the purpose of having a representative government," he said. "It's an important issue, and one that we are constantly concerned with and willing to work with the legislature on."
Equality Maryland, a lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender civil rights group, recently discovered that it had been included on a list of "political protest groups thought to be a threat to public safety."
Dan Furmansky, former executive director of the group, said, "What we've received from the Maryland State Police so far is actually quite chilling."
He said that, with the help of the ACLU, the group now has evidence that the Maryland State Police had been monitoring its e-mails. He was worried that he might be on an individual list as well.
"I don't yet know. I am scared to find out," he said.
Capital News Service contributed to this report.