Maryland state’s attorneys fight against bill that would give attorney general more prosecution powe
State’s attorneys from across Maryland descended Tuesday on Annapolis to fight against an “absurd” bill aimed at “usurping” their authorities as elected prosecutors.
House Bill 857 would give the Maryland Attorney General’s Office the power to prosecute police officers who kill civilians, a power that currently rests with the state’s 24 elected state’s attorneys.
The attorney general’s Independent Investigations Division already is required by law to investigate every police-caused death in the state and to issue a report on its findings as to whether criminal charges are possible. Those reports do not recommend charges one way or the other.
Attorney General Anthony Brown told lawmakers Tuesday that his office ought to have the authority because it would increase the public’s confidence that the right decision had been made, and that officers were not avoiding prosecution because of personal relationships between prosecutors and the department, or for political purposes.
“This bill is about ensuring public confidence in the prosecution decisions just like with investigations,” Brown said.
Lawmakers gave the attorney general’s office investigative authority two years ago when they passed the Police Accountability Act, and sponsors of this year’s bill have said the plan all along was for the office to have prosecutorial powers too.
Speaking at a House Judicial Committee hearing, a group of state’s attorneys strongly opposed the proposed change, saying they are more than capable of handling the prosecution of police officers who kill people, when charges are warranted.
“This is one of the reasons we are in office,” Baltimore County State’s Attorney Scott Shellenberger, a Democrat, told lawmakers. “We are elected by the people in our jurisdiction to make all of these decisions.”
House Judiciary Committee Chairman Luke Clippinger, a Baltimore City Democrat, is one of the sponsors of House Bill 857. The bill is cross-filed with Senate Bill 290, which was up for debate on the chamber floor earlier Tuesday where Republicans unsuccessfully attempted to amend it. Sponsored by Senate Judicial Proceedings Committee Chair Will Smith, the Senate’s bill is expected to receive final approval in that chamber later this week.
Twenty-three of Maryland’s 24 state’s attorneys oppose the bill, with John McCarthy of Montgomery County abstaining from giving an opinion.
Wicomico County State’s Attorney Jamie Dykes, a Republican, said the bill was “absurd” and that removing prosecutorial authority for cases involving death could set precedent for a further reduction of power.
“If elected state’s attorneys can’t be trusted to prosecute law enforcement officers for crimes that they commit involving death, then we can’t be trusted to prosecute law enforcement officers for other crimes,” Dykes said.
Should either bill become law, all other prosecutorial decisions in regard to police misconduct would remain with the local state’s attorney where the misconduct occurred.
Newly elected Harford County State’s Attorney Alison Healey, a Republican, said the bill is an attempt at “usurping” the authority of prosecutors in Maryland, and that voters already had the needed measures to hold prosecutors accountable for decisions they don’t approve of.
“If [Harford County residents] don’t approve of what I’ve done, they will vote me out,” Healey told lawmakers. “The AG’s office will have zero consequences if my community doesn’t agree with what they do in our police-involved shootings.”
Representatives from the Fraternal Order of Police and the Maryland Troopers Association also spoke against the bill. Retired Baltimore Circuit Court Chief Judge Wanda Keyes Heard also testified, urging lawmakers not to pass the bill, because it would be damaging for the judicial process.
“If passed, it will place decisions about charging and prosecuting in very crucial criminal cases in untrained hands,” said Heard, who campaigned for Baltimore State’s Attorney Ivan Bates.
While primarily focusing on civil and constitutional issues, the attorney general’s office does employ criminal prosecutors. The Organized Crime Unit, for example, prosecutes complex gang cases throughout the state.
The head of the Internal Investigations Division, Dana Mulhauser, worked in the Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division for 12 years and prosecuted police use-of-force cases around the country.
With the support of powerful lawmakers in both chambers, it is likely to pass. However, Shellenberger seemed open to a potential compromise that would keep some power with the state’s attorneys.
Shellenberger suggested the bills be amended to give local prosecutors a right of first refusal in police-involved death cases, meaning they could decide whether to prosecute, and if they refuse, the attorney general’s office could then bring charges if they believe it is warranted.
Bates, who did not attend the hearing, also was said to be supportive of such an amendment, according to Baltimore Del. Frank Conway, who called Bates during the hearing and asked him.
“Seeing the way the vote went in the Senate, I thought a compromise would be a good idea,” Shellenberger told The Baltimore Sun afterward.
Sun reporter Hannah Gaskill contributed to this article.