ANNAPOLIS — An article in the state’s criminal law could have the term “gang” replaced with “criminal organization” if bills cross-filed and sponsored by Del. Jesse Pippy (R-Frederick and Carroll) and Sen. Michael Hough (R-Frederick and Carroll) become law.
The change seems like a simple one, but both Pippy and Hough said this week it’s part of a broader effort to strengthen that part of the state code.
Both spent months sitting on a statewide task force to examine the state’s criminal gang statute, and Senate Bill 745 and House Bill 1083 were the result of deliberations between them, along with former federal prosecutors, members of the state Office of the Attorney General, ACLU, public defender’s office and other groups.
Frederick County State’s Attorney Charlie Smith, who participated in one of the task force’s meetings late last year, said the proposal is a good first step in giving the law more teeth.
“We’re in favor of it because it expands what we think as of gangs,” Smith said. “Right now, when people think of gangs, they think of MS-13, Bloods, Crips. To expand it to a criminal organization would include a lot of white-collar crime that’s currently occurring.”
In line with that, the bill also adds a lot of activities that could qualify under the criminal organization statute, including embezzlement, obstruction of justice, destruction of evidence, gambling offenses, and a number of contraband offenses.
Pippy said expanding the law to include not just “gangs,” along with these actions, is intended to lead to less bias toward certain minorities or demographic groups.
“There’s a perception that when you’re talking about gangs, it only applies to a certain demographic or a certain group,” Pippy said. “And what we’re saying is as a body, we want people to know that we’re not going to tolerate any organized crime.”
That includes financial crimes specifically, he added.
At one point in a hearing for the bill in the Senate’s Judicial Proceedings Committee, Sen. Ron Young (D-Frederick) asked if an amendment could be added to the bill requiring that any items seized by law enforcement through civil asset forfeiture be returned to the owners — such as cars, printers or items easily traceable to the original owner.
Hough said he would be interested in adding that amendment if it isn’t already covered by state law.
He added incorporating aspects of the federal Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act, or RICO statute, should be good, especially given cases that couldn’t be prosecuted in the past several years.
“There’s many times in Maryland we had cases ... [of] corruption in our prisons, and other institutions, [and] we were unable to prosecute those in Maryland and turn them over to the federal government,” Hough said. “Because their RICO statute is so much better, because they can charge someone as a corrupt organization.”
Several members of the task force testified in support of the bill in the Senate Judicial Proceedings Committee this week. The lone oral opposition came from Ricardo Flores and Melanie Shapiro, two members of the state public defender’s office.
Flores and Shapiro argued the law was too broad in defining those who could be part of a criminal organization. The current bill states the person must:
- Know of the criminal organization’s existence.
- Have been connected or associated with the organization “in a meaningful way.”
- Had a “general understanding” of the organization’s activities.
Pippy said he was open to cleaning up that language, and that simply being a family member of an organization isn’t enough to be charged.
“What we want to make sure is we’re not going after people who know somebody in an organization, we go after the people that are actually involved,” Pippy said.
Sentencing guidelines, which were part of the task force’s discussion, are not part of the legislation.
Smith said, however, a bill regarding that might come up when more of these crimes are prosecuted, given the current proposal passes in some form.
“We’re going to be able to prosecute more people under the gang/criminal organization statute, and I think that’s a first step,” Smith said. “And hopefully when people see us prosecuting these white-collar criminal organizations, maybe at that point in time they’ll be more empathetic about a sentencing provision with teeth.”