Say what you will about the spectacle in an Anne Arundel day-care center last fall, when a visiting mother started nursing a baby that was not her own--that it was potentially unhealthy, disturbing, a breach of all contemporary social standards. What it was not was illegal. At least, not yet.
When prosecutors said they had no reason to charge the woman, the bizarre incident made local headlines. And it galvanized state lawmakers, who returned to Annapolis this month with a bill specifically designed to prohibit the breast-feeding of another person's baby without permission--making it a misdemeanor, punishable by a $100 fine.
No matter that it rarely--if ever--happened before. Every year, state legislators introduce dozens of bills directly inspired by accounts of a freak tragedy or minute workaday hassle that they vow should never happen again.
In Maryland's state capital, they call them " '60 Minutes' bills"--legislation narrowly tailored to address the rare, real-life problems so compellingly presented by television news programs like the CBS Sunday institution.
"They come in on Monday morning and put in legislation based on what they'd seen Morley Safer and Ed Bradley tackle the night before," said Timothy F. Maloney, a former delegate from Prince George's County.
The bill sponsors are often earnest in their intent, but critics say the measures can reflect a legislative system too eager to pass laws addressing every conceivable problem.
Many bills are crafted in response to odd circumstances that revealed some kind of abhorrent behavior determined not to be, technically, illegal. One of the most heartbreaking of these was the death last year of 3-year-old Z'aira Marshall in Severn. The girl's father told police that she had died suddenly in his home and that he panicked and decided to leave her body in a wooded area.
Months later, he led them to her body. But while police still are investigating the circumstances of her death, they so far have had no reason to arrest the father, because he broke no law.
That didn't sit well with several Anne Arundel legislators, who have filed bills requiring people who discover a body to report the death to authorities within 24 hours.
Other seemingly obscure remedies are aimed at addressing specific constituent complaints. Del. Mary A. Conroy (D-Prince George's) has filed legislation requiring health insurers to cover the cost of wigs for chemotherapy patients who lose their hair.
Several women had come to Conroy's office venting their frustration in trying to find wigs that are affordable and attractive and fit well, said legislative aide Pat Bruce. While some programs offer free or discounted wigs, she said, many are poorly maintained hand-me-downs from deceased people.
"I mean, would you really want to wear them?" Bruce said.
But most of these niche bills tend to be ripped from the headlines. Del. Joan F. Stern (D-Montgomery) said she was devastated by news stories last summer about the discovery in Laurel of 21 greyhounds crammed in a hot, poorly ventilated truck en route from Florida to Philadelphia. Two of the dogs died.
"You hear of things like this, and you think, 'Why aren't we doing something here?' " she said. So she is trying to upgrade animal cruelty from a misdemeanor charge to a felony, punishable by a fine of $10,000 or 90 days in jail.
Then there's the bill from Sen. Thomas L. Bromwell (D-Baltimore County) that would require hospitals to disclose to patients if they ever reuse disposable equipment--filed hard on the heels of sensational investigative reports revealing such activity at some hospitals across the country.
Del. Obie Patterson (D-Prince George's), meanwhile, is on a crusade to require tow truck operators to accept at least two major credit cards. An aide to Patterson said the inspiration was reader complaints printed in The Washington Post's "Dr. Gridlock" column.
Often the bills are so naggingly specific that State House cynics wonder whether a problem is vast enough to merit a law. Maloney said he saw many that seemed targeted at the proverbial "redheaded Eskimos--bizarre scenarios that end up on national TV but are not likely to be repeated or repeated in the same form."
"Sometimes they try to fix things that aren't really broken," he said. Often, those bills are heard briefly in committee meetings and quickly killed.
But now and then, he said, a so-called "60 Minutes" issue will highlight an important public policy matter that had been heretofore overlooked. Years ago, he said, a constituent came forward to complain that his mentally ill neighbor had a basement full of firearms.
"There was nothing that could be done at the time," Maloney said. "But we crafted a solution," allowing gun licensing to take mental health history into account.
Last year, the General Assembly passed a bill prohibiting anyone from surreptitiously videotaping people in a private home without their permission--a void in the law that no one realized existed until police had to contend with a high-tech peeping Tom who was doing just that.
Last year, Sen. Norman R. Stone Jr. (D-Baltimore County) got a call from a constituent who was irked that he had to pay to have the phone company track down the crank caller who was harassing him.
There oughta be a law, he said. And now, maybe there will be: Stone has filed legislation requiring convicted telephone harassers to reimburse their victims for the cost of changing phone numbers or getting caller ID.
"It's not earthshaking," Stone conceded, "but to the person [it happened to] it is."