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County To Hold Youths Liable For Racist Acts of Vandalism

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In response to a rash of racially motivated acts of vandalism, a Maryland county government last week passed a law making minors liable for minimum civil fines.

The law, one of two emergency measures that took effect immediately, was passed by a 6-0 vote of the Montgomery County Council. The county, one the nation's most affluent communities, has set a statewide record of 150 incidents of hate and violence so far this year--twice the number of incidents reported during the same period last year.

Other state and local governments have passed measures to combat incidents such as the burning of crosses and the painting of anti-Semitic and racist messages on property. But Montgomery County's law is the first to hold minors accountable for minimum damages, in this case $2,000, according to David L. Scull, the council member who wrote the legislation.

Citizens Paid for Information

The other measure establishes a $50,000 fund to pay citizens who provide law-enforcement agencies with information leading to the arrest of vandals.

The council this week is considering a resolution that would designate a day to increase awareness of the problem in schools and other public places. Michael L. Gudis, a council member, said he introduced the measure after being told by young members of B'nai B'rith that many students were not aware of the seriousness of the hate acts.

Depending on the effectiveness of the county measures, Mr. Scull said he might press state legislators to pass similar bills.

Robert Kohler, assistant director for community services for the Anti-Defamation League of B'nai B'rith, said that the minimum fines might make it more difficult to convict suspects. "It could be self-defeating if it's $2,000 or nothing," he said. "The community should keep a close watch on that."

Mr. Scull said efforts to prosecute people suspected of committing such acts have usually failed because of the need to prove guilt "beyond a reasonable doubt." He said the civil law's requirement of "a preponderance of evidence" should make conviction simpler.

Mr. Scull also said that the county has had difficulty obtaining full reports of such incidents. The fund to pay "whistle-blowers" should make obtaining the information much easier, he said.

Most civil-suit convictions require that the guilty party pay the victim an amount of money that represents the amount of damage done. But the Montgomery County law states that the fine will not be less than $2,000.

Because many minors might not be able to pay such a fine, the law gives the judge the option of requiring the person found guilty to perform $2,000 worth of public service instead.

Parents can be held liable by the court for their children's behavior, but Mr. Gudis said it is "unlikely" that anyone not directly involved with the acts would be held responsible.

Mr. Scull said he borrowed the minimum-damages idea from copyright law, which automatically gives the wronged party at least a certain amount of money.

Mr. Gudis said there is a need for better education about bigotry in the schools. He said he has talked with Harry Pitt, the deputy superintendent of schools in the county, about stressing the issue more with discussions in social-studies classes of the Holocaust and other events.

Meanwhile, said Mr. Scull, the law will "plant seeds of doubt in the minds of potential perpetrators" about whether their own friends might turn them in to receive the reward.

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