They say a watched pot never boils, but you don’t hear so much about the corollary: An unwatched pot can boil over before you know it if you’re not paying attention.

Both things are true for the legislative process, which can look like a system designed to keep things from getting done if you closely follow some bills. That masks that fact that hundreds of pieces of legislation fly through the State House every year, and when there’s not sufficient opposition, they end up as state law before all their consequences are fully understood.

That could be the case with L.D. 251, a well-intentioned bill designed to give law enforcement a tool to handle unruly suspects but which could also blast an overly broad hole in civil liberties protections. The bill has already passed without debate (or “under the hammer”) in the House of Representatives, and could be on its way to the governor’s desk if the Maine Senate does not take action and slow it down.

The bill sounds innocuous enough. “An Act Regarding Refusing to Submit to Arrest or Detention” and it would, amoung other things, make it a class D crime, punishable by up to one year in jail, to take any action that “hinders, delays or prevents the lawful arrest or detention.”

Law enforcement organizations say that they need the statute to help them in situations where suspects are not compliant, but they have not yet made a clear case for why this new authority would be needed or how it would be contained.

It’s already against the law refuse to stop for an officer, to resist arrest or to interfere with an officer who is trying to arrest someone else. It’s also already a class D crime to use force against an officer who is trying to make an arrest, but this bill would lower the bar significantly, making “hindering (or) delaying” the same type of offense as taking a swing at a cop.

The broad language raises difficult questions. Could the statute be used to pile up numerous charges for the same conduct giving a prosecutor a stronger hand at plea bargaining? Could it apply to lawfully assembled demonstrators, when police officers wade through a crowd to arrest someone for civil disobedience?

If not, what in the propsed law would prevent those excesses?

There is no reason to rush this piece of legislation into the law books. Members of the Maine Senate should pay some attention to this pot before it boils over. They need to “hinder (and) delay” L.D. 251 before it goes too far.

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