Recently Maryland has been considering criminal bills related to the special protection of minors. This year, the “Misuse of Interactive Computer Service” bill, also known as “Grace’s Law”, is expected to be signed into law. Sponsored by Senator Allen Kittleman, it is a General Assembly bill named after a high school student who killed herself last year after getting harassed for months on social media. The bill makes it a misdemeanor to harass minors online, putting in place penalties in the form of a $500 fine or up to 1 year in jail.
The goal of the new law is to prohibit intentionally harassing and annoying speech towards a minor, but some critics have noted that these terms are not adequately defined within the new law. The ACLU has already stated that the cyberbullying bill is unconstitutional and will probably be struck down by a free speech challenge. An ACLU attorney says that part of the bill prohibits using a computer “in a course of conduct that inflicts serious emotional distress.”
In a public comment, Kittleman said the bill, “gives a tool to the state’s attorney. This is something we could prosecute. … If we’d had that a year and a half ago, maybe the person who was doing this to Grace would have stopped.”
Protecting children is also the focus of another new bill that is before the Maryland General Assembly. Under this bill, which targets those who commit domestic violence, violent offenders in Maryland may have their prison sentence “enhanced” by five years if they committed a crime of violence when they know or should reasonably know a minor is within sight or earshot in a residence. An “enhancement” of five years is added on top of whatever the sentence for the underlying crime is. A minor under the bill is someone between the ages of 2 and 16.
Children have previously been considered domestic violence victims if they experienced physical harm directly. However, this bill expands the concept of children as victims of domestic violence. The bill grew out of a study that shows children who witness domestic violence are at greater risk of experiencing or enacting domestic violence when they grow up. According to research, the traumatic experience of seeing a parent or caregiver be assaulted can cause emotional and psychological wounds that lead the child to be more likely to drop out of school, abuse substances, be unemployed or become involved in crime as a juvenile.
The bill is supported by Maryland’s Attorney General, Doug Gansler, who wrote, “Measures such as this one can help to stop the inter-generational cycle of violence in families and make a real impact in preventing domestic violence.” The bill has been opposed by Ricardo A. Flores, the government relations director for the Office of the Public Defender who noted that the language “departs from basic foundations of evidence regarding harm, tying harm to intent, and it is not just a sentencing enhancement.”
Both of the bills described above may be too broad. While protection of minors is a noble goal, the language of these bills may overly expand what is considered a proportionate legal consequence for undesirable behavior. If you or a loved one is accused of a crime related to minors, there are harsh penalties, and you should make sure you hire a qualified and knowledgeable criminal law attorney to defend you. Contact lawyer Anthony Fatemi and his legal team for a legal consultation. They have years of experience in Maryland criminal defense including charges involving drugs, handguns, domestic violence, DWI, sex offenses, felony, theft, and assault.
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