Democratic party politicians in Maryland have announced plans to legislate against surveillance of non-violent groups after a gay rights activists were targeted by state police.
Equality Maryland, a group with thousands of members, works to secure and protect the rights of LGBT Marylanders by promoting legislative initiatives at state, county and municipal level using professional lobbyists and legislative staff.
It was one of several non-violent groups deemed a security threat by the Homeland Security and Intelligence Division of Maryland State Police, who kept dossiers on activists and protests.
State Senator Jamie Raskin is one of those proposing new legislation:
“The State Police are not Maryland’s thought police,” he said.
“Marylanders have a right to work for environmental protection, an end to the death penalty, marriage equality, peace, and bike lanes without being spied upon and called terrorists by law enforcement officials.
“Our bill will forbid covert tactics against our citizens unless there is specific reasonable suspicion that they are engaged in criminal activity.
“It will also forbid the Orwellian practice of keeping political dossiers on citizens that are not part of actual criminal investigations.
“At a time of staggering financial crisis, let’s stop wasting our money spying on people nonviolently exercising their political freedom.”
Police have said they will purge the existing files.
The proposed legislation seeks to codify the recommendations of the report issued in October by former Attorney General Stephen Sachs.
Specifically, the bill will mandate that law enforcement use of covert techniques and compiling of criminal intelligence dossiers about Marylanders’ political views and activities be based on reasonable suspicion of criminal activity.
In July the American Civil Liberties Union of Maryland uncovered that the state police engaged in covert surveillance of local peace and anti-death penalty groups for over a year from 2005-2006.
The ACLU said dozens of individuals and organisations were targeted by the Maryland State Police, which maintained criminal intelligence files on their political beliefs and activities, labeling them as suspected terrorists and security threats.
According to their own files, the MSP had no evidence or suspicion that any identified target was engaged in criminal activity of any kind.
ACLU of Maryland Legislative Director Cynthia Boersma said:
“We believe that legislation is necessary to ensure that the protection of our most basic rights do not change with changing administrations.
“This bill establishes clear standards to protect both our First Amendment rights and our public safety by directing that criminal intelligence and counter-terrorism resources are used to respond to suspected criminal activity rather than spying on legitimate political activity.”
In September 2007 Maryland’s highest court upheld a state law that defines marriage as between a man and a woman, ending a discrimination case brought by 19 gay couples.
The Court of Appeal ruled four to three that Maryland’s 1973 ban on same sex marriage does not deny gay people fundamental human rights and does not discriminate on the basis of gender.
The court found that the state has a legitimate right to oppose gay marriage.
Since July 2008, 11 protections for domestic partners have been provided, including hospital visitation, the making of funeral arrangements and adding a domestic partner’s name to be added or removed from the deed of a residence, without incurring a tax liability.
However, there is no state register of domestic partners so couples have to prove that their partnership exists by providing a sworn affidavit along with two other legal documents such as evidence of a joint mortgage or bank account.