It’s not a crime you would find in any state law book.
But trying to take one’s own life in Maryland is punishable under a rarely used relic of 13th-century English common law, adopted by the state’s Colonial government before U.S. independence.
Maryland has since developed its own legal code, of course, but the state continues to recognize common-law crimes in its judicial system.
Attempted suicide has been prosecuted at least 10 times in the past five years, state data shows. Del. David Moon (D-Montgomery) is trying to stop the practice with legislation to decriminalize the act.
“It’s very peculiar,” Moon said. “The problem with this is prosecutors use it to try to get people into treatment. It’s an entirely backwards way of dealing with mental health.”
His bill is before the House Judiciary Committee. It has the support of suicide prevention groups, who say decriminalizing suicide would reduce the stigma and shift the focus from punishment to treatment.
But the legislation drew sharp questions from lawmakers at a committee hearing last week, with one delegate concerned it would open the door to legalizing assisted suicide (which Moon says is nonsense), and another calling the current law an intervention tool that families may need if other social services are overwhelmed.
“If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it,” said Del. Susan K. McComas (R-Harford). If the law is used sparingly, she added, “What’s the harm?”
The issue entered the spotlight last year, after news organizations wrote about a Caroline County man sentenced to two years’ probation and a suspended three-year prison sentence as part of a plea agreement that involved a charge of attempted suicide.
The man — a former Baltimore City police officer who had been diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder — was intoxicated when he attempted to kill himself with a shotgun and his brother tried to stop it.
Prosecutors initially placed the case on an inactive docket, on the condition that the man receive counseling. He was later found in a parked vehicle near a high school with weapons in the car, which reactivated the case.
“I hadn’t heard of it before, and I haven’t heard of it since,” said his attorney Matthew F. Emmick, adding that his client pleaded guilty to attempted suicide in exchange for additional charges of reckless endangerment being dropped.
“Our strategic thinking was that we could present this to the judge as a mental-health issue,” Emmick said. “My client was going through a crisis. This system leaves a lot to be desired for people with similar problems.”
The Maryland State’s Attorneys’ Association voted to take no position on Moon’s legislation. The Maryland Office of the Public Defender supports the repeal.
“We just completely disagree that you have to charge or criminalize someone to get them the services they need,” said Ricardo A. Flores, the office’s director of government relations.
Centuries ago, suicide was considered a crime against “God and the King.” People who took their lives forfeited their property and were denied religious burials.
Most states stopped criminalizing the act decades ago, and Britain got rid of the criminal prohibition in 1961.
A bill to decriminalize attempted suicide in Virginia failed last year, however, and has not been reintroduced.
The Maryland bill would have to emerge from committee and pass both chambers before the session ends in April to have a chance to be adopted into law.
Moon said the issue highlights an unresolved societal problem that directly affected him last year, when a family member in distress was taken by police to the hospital for treatment. The relative was not charged with a crime.
“We use the criminal-justice system to deal with mental-health issues,” Moon testified at the committee hearing. “If we keep enabling the law enforcement function to take over the public health function, we’re never going to fix it.”
Suicide rates are on the rise in Maryland, and suicide is the third-leading cause of death among state residents ages 15 to 25, according to the Health Department. Suicide prevention advocates say placing criminal charges on a mentally ill adult or child deepens an existing stigma.
As committee members questioned Moon last week, some asked whether his bill could cause confusion or open a loophole for medically assisted suicide for terminally ill patients, which advocates have tried to legalize for years in Maryland without success.
That bill is expected to be reintroduced this session.
“This bill has nothing to do with end-of-life legislation,” Moon assured the committee.
Emmick said his client was undergoing mental-health treatment at the time of his initial arrest and did not need to be charged with attempted suicide to seek help.
The man has been turned down by potential employers because of the criminal conviction, Emmick said. The Washington Post generally does not identify people who attempt suicide.
“My client supports repealing the common law,” Emmick said. “If his having taken this charge spurs this conversation about a larger failing of the system, he is grateful.”