Maryland county proposes stiff false alarm penalties

The county government is proposing some of the steepest fines in the state for people whose security systems repeatedly summon police to false alarms.

While the first two bogus alerts would be forgiven, police representatives yesterday proposed a $120 fine for the each of the next four false alarms in one year, then the next six false alerts would cost $500 apiece, and if the security system sends out 13 false alarms or more, each alert could bring a $1,000 fine.

The proposal has not been formally introduced to the County Council, but the draft legislation drew immediate concern from industry leaders and county politicians who brought up questions of fairness and warnings that the policy would dissuade people from having security systems.

Anne Arundel is one of the few jurisdictions in Maryland that currently does not penalize anyone for the 60 trips county police make each day to investigate false alarms - more than 22,000 bogus alerts each year and representing 99 percent of all alarm calls on which police are dispatched.

Police representatives who have researched how to combat the false alarms told the County Council during a work session yesterday that the fines will help diminish the problem, which drains manpower and wastes gasoline. They added that fine systems elsewhere, such as Montgomery County, have cut the rate of response to false alarms to 24 percent and saved $1.7 million a year.

But the fees suggested by police leaders and County Executive John R. Leopold's administration are dramatically higher than elsewhere in Maryland. No other jurisdiction has an initial fine higher than $50, and most start at $25, according to the Maryland Burglar & Fire Alarm Association.

"Higher fines can discourage people from using the system, opening the door to burglars," the association's president Dick Avnet warned the council.

Council Chairwoman Cathy Vitale, R-Severna Park, said she was concerned with the initial registration fee of $200 for businesses and $25 for residences. Mr. Avnet said the annual registration fees can prompt the elderly and other people on fixed incomes to abandon their security systems.

Ms. Vitale also raised alarm because the police suggested making it county law to not respond to an address after the third false alarm in one day or the 20th false alarm in one year.

Mr. Avnet said the industry generally supports false alarm legislation.

"This is a cost of doing business that they realize," Mr. Avnet said. "The fine thing is the only thing out of whack."

Police Capt. Tom Rzepkowski, who over the past year studied other false alarm laws across the state and country, argued the ceilings to proposed fine structure in Anne Arundel reflect those elsewhere.

"They all get up there eventually. We just get up there faster," he said.

The move to cut costs and raise money by levying some of the highest false alarm fees in the state comes one month after Mr. Leopold suggested raising $5 million by hiking other county fees and another $6 million by setting the county's hotel room tax rate to the highest in Maryland and among the stiffest in the country.

The council agreed to the fee increases, but nixed the hotel room plan. The county faces financial challenges from the slumping housing market and rising costs.

Ms. Vitale said yesterday was the first time the council saw the false alarm fine proposal, and that she and her colleagues would ask more questions and do more research before settling on a final bill, if introducing legislation at all.