ANNAPOLIS -- The U.S. Supreme Court has said it's legal, and Congress has refused to amend the Constitution to outlaw it. But beginning today, Maryland lawmakers have decided, anyone who burns the state or national flag could face fines or a year in jail.
A flag desecration statute is one of hundreds of laws approved by legislators this spring that take effect today in Maryland. They range from the nearly inconsequential -- after years of behind-the-scenes wrangling, legislative leaders finally decided who will oversee the state's archaeologists -- to the innovative: Beginning today, the state will pay the private insurance premiums for some AIDS patients.
Some of the session's most contentious subjects, including new regulations on abortion and environmental initiatives, died in the General Assembly. One other major bill, a fierce battle between lawyers, unions and businesses over asbestos-related lawsuits, was vetoed by Gov. William Donald Schaefer.
But whether you fish for eels, launder drug money, or plan to buy a home, you will be affected by some of the 818 initiatives that made it through the legislative process this year. The new laws mean some prisoners will be monitored with a new electronic detention system while serving time at home. Oil companies will face new fines for major spills in state waters. And all of the state's residents should get a respite from computer-dialed phone solicitations, which were already illegal but now carry new penalties.
While other flag-burning statutes have been struck down as unconstitutional, state politicians, urged on by Schaefer, spent considerable energy fashioning a law this spring that they say will penalize flag desecration without infringing on the Bill of Rights.
The product is a provision that punishes any act of destruction to the flag if it is done to incite a breach of the peace. Flag-burning of a private and peaceful sort is allowed. But supporters of the measure say it still gives prosecutors a strong tool to guard the colors.
"In Maryland we have done something Congress was unable to do," said Schaefer's chief legislative aide, David S. Iannucci. He was referring to the failure last week in Congress of a constitutional amendment against flag desecration.
Many significant laws approved by the General Assembly during its 90-day session will not become effective until later. New tests for drugged drivers will start in October, for example, while a controversial law that could strip some drug-using professionals of their work permits takes effect in January.
Other drug-related provisions take effect today, including two major Schaefer initiatives.
Starting now, it will be more difficult for drug dealers to go free on bail; those charged under the state's "drug kingpin" law will be held in jail before their trial and will have to prove to a judge that they do not pose a threat to the public and won't skip town.
Also, real estate agents, bankers, jewelers and others who handle large amounts of cash will have to start reporting to the state transactions of $10,000 or more in an effort to crack down on money laundering. That information already must be supplied to federal authorities, but state officials wanted to monitor the flow of money on their own. Under the new law, anyone who knowingly accepts the proceeds from drug sales will be subject to a fine of up to $250,000 and five years in jail for a first offense.
It also becomes illegal today to sell cigarette rolling papers, which are sometimes used to smoke marijuana, to minors.
Those who suffer from AIDS will get a new form of help from the state beginning today. Under an initiative designed to save money for Maryland's Medicaid program, the health department will pick up the private insurance premiums for up to 150 AIDS patients in danger of losing private coverage because of their inability to work. Health officials began taking applications last week, and expect the program to save the state about $2 million.
Another new law clarifies the authority of judges to order the withdrawal of life-sustaining medical care if a patient has requested it through earlier agreements with a guardian. The issue came before the U.S. Supreme Court last week when the justices ruled that states have the right to block families from disconnecting patients from life-support systems if there is not convincing evidence of the patient's desires. There has been at least one case in Maryland where a judge refused to allow a patient to be disconnected because he felt state law did not explicitly give him the authority to do so.
Religious and ethnic violence is targeted under another new law. Anyone who commits a hate crime that results in a death will now face up to 20 years in jail, compared with the current maximum sentence of 10 years.
Separate penalties are also established, beginning today, for anyone who breaks into a research facility in an attempt to destroy or steal research data.
The case grew out of an incident in Montgomery County in which an activist for an animal-rights group gained unauthorized access to a lab. The new law carries a jail term of up to five years and a fine of as much as $5,000.
There's good news for conservationists: Starting today, a larger share of the money paid in transfer taxes on land sales will be used to purchase sensitive parklands in the state.
Eel fishermen, however, have new regulations to contend with. Because of concern about overfishing, commercial fishermen who catch eels in pots will be required to have a license starting today.