'Sextortion' Outlawed in Maryland

by | October 2, 2018

By Michael Dresser

Using threats of shame or economic harm to coerce a person into having sex will become explicitly illegal in Maryland under one of the hundreds of new laws that take effect Monday in the state.

While officially gender-neutral, the bill is one of many the General Assembly passed this year with a focus on protecting or otherwise enhancing the quality of life of women. They address a variety of concerns -- including sexual assault, workplace harassment and the rights of female prisoners.

The bills are going on the books at a time when women's rights to be protected from assault and harassment are at the forefront of a national debate over the #MeToo movement and the confirmation of Brett Kavanaugh as a U.S. Supreme Court justice.

Lisae Jordan, executive director of the Maryland Coalition Against Sexual Assault, said 2018 -- like 2017 -- was a very good year for women's issues in Annapolis. And she said the national backlash against powerful men who harass and assault women was part of the reason.

"#MeToo definitely helped keep the momentum going, and it helped focus the attention of legislators as they approached the election," Jordan said.

All of Maryland's General Assembly seats are up for election Nov. 6.

Oct. 1 is the day when most Maryland bills become law. Others, many of them with budgetary implications, take effect July 1 to coincide with the start of the fiscal year.

There are significant new laws taking effect Monday that wouldn't be considered primarily women's issues.

There's a ban on so-called "gay conversion" therapy as a medical specialty, sponsored by Democratic Sen. Richard Madaleno of Montgomery County. There's a ban on "bump stocks" that can increase the firing rate of weapons, sponsored by Democratic Sen. Victor Ramirez of Prince George's County. There's a bill by Republican Sen. Bryan Simonaire of Anne Arundel County and Democratic Del. Pat Young of Baltimore County requiring the state to track suicides by members of the military and veterans.

Another bill relating to guns that is becoming law is the so-called "red flag" legislation. It will allow a court to issue an "extreme risk protective order" for the seizure of guns from their owners when a judge finds credible evidence that they are a danger to themselves or others. Gun rights groups and most GOP lawmakers strongly opposed the bill, while Republican Gov. Larry Hogan signed it.

One measure affecting drivers is an expansion of the state's "move over" law, which requires motorists to change lanes or slow down for working tow trucks or emergency vehicles. It will now cover emergency maintenance vehicles, garbage trucks, highway or utility trucks, and other service vehicles. It was sponsored by the late Sen. Wayne Norman, a Harford County Republican who introduced it before he died in March, and Del. Anne Healey, a Prince George's County Democrat.

But Sen. Bobby Zirkin's legislation dealing with "sextortion" and "revenge porn" is a prime example of the laws responding to women's concerns.

Jordan said the impetus for the bill came from a growing problem of people using the internet to build relationships, gain others' confidence and persuade them to provide increasingly more explicit pictures. Then, the so-called "sextortionists" threaten to share the images to coerce the victims -- usually women -- into appearing in pornography or having sex.

Under the new law, such actions will be a misdemeanor, carrying a penalty of up to 10 years in prison and a $10,000 fine.

Jordan and Zirkin, a Baltimore County Democrat, said the law takes in more than internet activity. It prohibits threats to cause emotional distress or economic harm, or to accuse the victims of committing crimes, in order to coerce the victim into sex or participation in pornography. For instance, Zirkin said, it would cover someone who threatened to call authorities about a person's immigration status to coerce them into sexual activity.

Zirkin said the legislation closes a loophole in Maryland's extortion law that excluded sexual activity because it was not technically considered a thing of monetary value.

"It's an important new tool in prosecutors' arsenals," Jordan said.

Most of the other new laws that largely affect women are sponsored by Democrats, which reflects both that party's domination of the legislature and the greater percentage of Democratic lawmakers who are women.

The laws include an expansion of victims' rights in college disciplinary actions over allegations of sexual assault, sponsored by Sen. Joan Carter Conway of Baltimore and Del. Aruna Miller of Montgomery County.

Another, sponsored by Baltimore Del. Brooke Lierman, prohibits law enforcement officers from engaging in sexual activity with a person in their custody.

Two of the laws deal with sexual harassment in the workplace.

One, sponsored by Sen. Craig Zucker of Montgomery County, and Del. Kris Valderrama of Prince George's County, prohibits employers from imposing nondisclosure agreements on women reporting sexual harassment and requires employers with 50 or more workers to disclose information about their records in maintaining harassment-free workplaces. The other, introduced by Del. Shelly Hettleman of Baltimore County, requires sexual harassment prevention training for state employees.

Several of the new laws are specific in their application to women, including one by Del. Carol Krimm of Frederick County, that requires the state to provide employees with appropriate places and time for them to pump breast milk.

Two deal with the rights of female inmates. One, sponsored by Sen. Delores Kelley of Baltimore County and Del. Kathleen Dumais of Montgomery County, requires jails and prisons to adopt policies on how to deal with pregnant inmates and to inform them of those policies as soon as they test positive for pregnancy.

The other, by Del. Pamela Queen  and Sen. Susan Lee, both of Montgomery County, is intended to ensure that incarcerated women have access to enough feminine hygiene products. Alice Wilkerson, a lobbyist who worked for passage of the menstrual products bill, said advocates heard reports that some jails had policies limiting the number of feminine hygiene products issued to five a month. She said that forced some women to spend their limited funds at the institution's commissary to buy the supplies they needed.

While women can be on both sides of domestic abuse, victims of such crimes will find it easier to obtain permanent protective orders in cases in which their assailants have been convicted of abusing them and imprisoned, under legislation sponsored by Kelley and Del. Vanessa Atterbeary of Howard County.

Another Atterbeary bill will require defendants convicted in domestic violence cases to be informed of an existing requirement that they not possess firearms and sets a procedure for them to surrender their guns.

New Maryland laws taking effect Oct. 1:

  • "Sextortion and revenge porn": Using threats of shame or economic harm to coerce a person into having sex will become a misdemeanor carrying a penalty of up to 10 years and a $10,000 fine under the "sextortion and revenge porn" legislation.
  • "Gay conversion" therapy ban: A law bans "gay conversion" therapy as a medical specialty.
  • "Bump stock" ban: A ban on "bump stocks" that can increase the firing rate of weapons is taking effect.
  • Tracking suicides: The state is required to track suicides by members of the military and veterans.
  • "Red flag" legislation: "Red flag" legislation will allow a court to issue an "extreme risk protective order" for the seizure of guns from their owners when a judge finds credible evidence that they are a danger to themselves or others.
  • "Move-over" law expands: The state's "move-over" law requiring motorists to change lanes or slow down for tow trucks and emergency vehicles is expanding to cover emergency maintenance vehicles, garbage trucks, highway or utility trucks and other service vehicles.
  • Expanding victims' rights in college: An expansion of victims' rights in college disciplinary actions over allegations of sexual assault becomes a new law.
  • Sexual activity with person in custody prohibited: Law enforcement officers are not allowed to engage in sexual activity with a person in custody.
  • Sexual harassment in the workplace: One law prohibits employers from imposing nondisclosure agreements on women reporting sexual harassment and requires large employers to disclose information about their records in maintaining harassment-free workplaces.
  • Sexual harassment prevention training: State employees are required to receive sexual harassment prevention training.
  • Breast pump law: A new law requires that the state provide employees with appropriate places and time for them to pump breast milk.
  • Laws protecting pregnant inmates: A new law requires jails and prisons to adopt policies on how to deal with pregnant inmates and to inform them of those policies as soon as they test positive for pregnancy.
  • Menstrual products bill: Incarcerated women will have access to enough feminine hygiene products with the passage of the menstrual products bill.
  • Domestic violence protective orders: Victims of domestic violence will find it easier to obtain permanent protective orders in cases in which their assailants have been convicted of crime.
  • Informing convicted domestic violence defendants not to own guns: Defendants convicted in domestic violence cases must be informed of an existing requirement that they not possess firearms. The law sets a procedure for them to surrender their guns.

(c)2018 The Baltimore Sun