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A bill to bar the Maryland Transit Administration from conducting audio surveillance on its buses divided the Maryland Senate, which narrowly struck down the bill this week before deciding to sent it back to committee.

In October, the MTA began recording sound on some of its 758 buses, which operate largely in the Baltimore metropolitan area, to help investigate potential crimes and resolve disputes between customers and drivers, but some lawmakers view the practice as a violation of privacy.

The 23-22 vote in the Senate on Monday night against moving the bill forward lets the recording practice continue.

However, the chamber reconsidered its vote Tuesday and sent the bill back to the Judicial Proceedings Committee at the request of Sen. Richard S. Madaleno Jr. (D-Dist. 18) of Kensington, who voted against the ban but said further discussion could be helpful. Committee Chairman Brian E. Frosh (D-Dist. 16) of Chevy Chase said it was unlikely the committee would take up the measure again this session.

On the Senate floor Monday, Sen. Nathaniel J. McFadden (D-Dist. 45) of Baltimore defended the recording, arguing that “citizens have a right, whether they live, work or visit our great city, to feel safe when they find themselves on our means of public transportation.”

McFadden acknowledged concerns about privacy, but said that if riders abided by the law, their rights would not be violated.

Sen. James Brochin (D-Dist. 42) of Towson, who co-sponsored the ban with Sen. Allan H. Kittleman (R-Dist. 9), argued that his proposal was not about public safety, it was about the law.

Maryland requires two-party consent for audio recording, a law the MTA was evading by posting signs in buses indicating that riders agreed to be recorded just by boarding the bus, Brochin said.

“A lot of people can’t afford other means of transportation,” Brochin said. When these people step onto the bus, their right to privacy is being violated, he said.

Sen. Verna Jones-Rodwell (D-Dist. 44) of Baltimore, who had hoped to broker a compromise that would leave MTA with some leeway to record audio when needed, said it wouldn’t be fair to institute a ban that applied to MTA buses, but not to other bus systems elsewhere in the state.

Montgomery County’s Ride On bus system and Prince George’s County’s TheBus each have some form of audio recording. The Prince George’s system is only triggered if there’s a specific incident, said Sen. Victor R. Ramirez (D-Dist. 47) of Cheverly.

The ban received both support and opposition from both sides of the aisle.

Sens. Jamie Raskin (D-Dist. 20) of Takoma Park and Christopher B. Shank (R-Dist. 2) of Hagerstown both compared the audio surveillance to the totalitarian “Big Brother” regime depicted in George Orwell’s novel “1984.”

Sen. Richard F. Colburn (R-Dist. 37) of Cambridge said he supported the safety concerns of the senators from Baltimore city and didn’t think it was a privacy issue. “This is a crime deterrent,” Colburn said. “When I get on a bus, I'm not looking to get on a public bus for privacy.”

dleaderman@gazette.net