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courtroom-898931_1280Even before the medical marijuana commission began the selection process for awarding grower and distributor licenses it was hypothesized that some losing applicants would sue over the unfair process. According to newly drafted regulations, hundreds of qualified applicants ready and able to provide patients with medical cannabis would never get their chance. By drastically limiting the number of licenses, the commission thought it would put the state in a better position to regulate the program, but all it really did was ensure that numerous highly qualified candidates would be shutout. And with tens of millions of dollars at stake it was extremely likely that some of these qualified applicants would not just accept losing, but rather take their fight to the courts. Well, this week the hypothesis rang true as a losing company that planned to grow legal pot in Washington County filed a lawsuit against the Medical Marijuana Commission and the Department of Health and Mental Hygiene. The company filed suit in the Circuit Court for Baltimore City, and served it on the Attorney General’s Office soon thereafter.

The plaintiff is the same company that we wrote about in our last Blog post, which was originally awarded a license to grow pot but then stripped of it in favor of a Prince George’s County grower just 48 hours later in the interest of “geographical diversity”. If lawsuits against the commission and the DHMH were highly probable at outset of this flawed process, the commissioner’s suspicious change of heart in July made them a mathematical certainty. There was simply no way that the two companies who lost their golden tickets in the eleventh hour would stand down and not take the state to court. In addition to filing suit, the aforementioned company already began to wage a public battle against the process with lawyers and a well known ex NFL player going on camera to bash the unfair process. The former Raven offensive tackle turned medical cannabis investor has been outspoken about the NFL’s archaic policies toward marijuana for a few years, and is well versed relaying his opinions to the media.

The other company that was shut out after the commission’s flip flop has yet to file their lawsuit, though at this point it seems like a foregone conclusion. These lawsuits will probably delay the entire medical marijuana program yet again, but don’t blame the profit seeking growers and their lawyers. Lawmakers took years to pass legitimate medical cannabis legislation, and the commission had months to decide on regulations for the program. Both had dozens of already existing state programs to look at for guidance, but they valued creating a uniquely Maryland program over mimicking one of the many already successful platforms. The patients in need of alternative treatments to narcotic drugs and other prescription medications are the one’s who have suffered, and now it looks as if the relief is even further away. The company who filed the lawsuit has stated publicly that that it does not wish for its litigation to hold up the program’s progress, though delays seems inescapable. Latest predictions have medical marijuana being available in the summer of 2017 but timeliness is not something we have come to expect.

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cannabis-1418325_1280First, state politicians passed a completely ineffective medical marijuana law that unsurprisingly had zero takers. Then a year later when a legitimate medical marijuana program became state law, the commission in charge of writing the policy dragged its feet for months. After going well beyond the allotted time frame for which to craft the regulations of the program, the newly created commission began to accept applications. But as had been the case for the last three years, the commission delayed the process yet again by drastically underestimating the length of time it would take to review the applications. Finally, after two years the commission began awarding licenses to legally grow pot to the 15 (a completely arbitrary number) most qualified candidates. With the licenses issued it was finally time to get to work and plant the first seeds that would ultimately be used to legally treat patients with cannabis for the first time in Maryland history. This was exciting stuff indeed, but lest the reader think that this story has a happy ending we would remind you that nothing related to medical marijuana has come easy in our great state, and awarding the licenses now seems like the beginning of a long battle rather than the end of one.

The medical marijuana commission has taken a ton of heat for not awarding grow licenses to minority owned candidates. This issue has grabbed most of the headlines and has minority leaders up in arms about the process, but it is not the commission’s only highly criticized move of the summer. According to public records the five-member commission chose to award licenses to the top 15 rated candidates, as rated by an independent application reviewer, toward the end of July. Then a week later the members went back on their decision and dropped the last two to make the cut in favor of lower ranked candidates. Apparently one commissioner, a Prince George’s County law enforcement officer, persuaded the other four members to award a license to a PG County applicant instead of a Washington County operation that was ranked higher and had already been selected. A Frederick County applicant was also dropped in favor of a lower ranked Worcester County operation. The dropped applicants were outraged when they caught wind of this change of heart, and rightly so.

While state regulators included geographical diversity as a key factor in awarding the licenses it was never intended to shut out otherwise qualified candidates. But this is exactly what happened when less qualified applicants received licenses solely based on their location. The point of hiring an independent application evaluator was to take any sort of subjectivity and bias out of the process. But it’s easy to see that objectivity goes out the window when a commissioner who has spent his career working in Prince George’s County convinces the other members to select a less qualified candidate from his home county. Even if there were only good intentions the sudden change of heart gives off a strong feeling of impropriety, which is something the commission can ill afford at this time.

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maryland-280863_1280Holiday weekends motivate thousands to take to the highways to vacation or visit with friends and family. And in Maryland when the weather is warm, a large majority of these motorists travel between the Baltimore and D.C. metro areas and the Eastern Shore. Some stop in the smaller cities and towns along the way, but most end up in Ocean City or the Delaware beaches. Unfortunately there’s only one major thoroughfare between these two destinations, and the traffic can be a nightmare if you leave at the wrong time. Using nightmare to describe traffic might be a figure of speech, as Route 50 gridlock has become just part of the beachgoer experience. The real nightmares out on the highways are the serious car, motorcycle and truck accidents that injure or even claim the lives of those in search of a little sun and sand before heading back to work. Each year the Maryland State Police has made it a priority to do everything in their power to mitigate the increased risk of serious auto accidents that accompany the spring and summer holidays, and this past Labor Day weekend was no different.

In a recent press release State Police took credit for reducing crashes and keeping the public safe, thanks to various initiatives to post more troopers along the holiday driving routes. Initiatives such as Operation Showboat sent troopers posted in the Eastern Shore and the southern part of the state to specifically patrol the Route 50 stretch between the Chesapeake Bay Bridge and Ocean City. These troopers were targeting intoxicated drivers and anyone appearing to be operating in an unsafe manner. All told, MSP reported their troopers conducted over 9,000 traffic stops over the holiday week, and issued over 6,000 citations. There were 119 drunk driving arrests, including 10 arrested over the weekend by the much-publicized S.P.I.D.R.E team, a state police task force dedicated solely toward DUI and DWI enforcement. This task force took to the highways of Montgomery County, which has often been labeled as a drunk driving hotbed by law enforcement.

In addition to the thousands of citations and the 100 plus DUI arrests, the Labor Day traffic stops also produced 64 arrests unrelated to impaired driving. These unfortunate holiday motorists were probably pulled over for some minor traffic infraction (or nothing at all) and then arrested after a search yielded drugs or other contraband such as firearms. Police have made it a common practice to conduct traffic stops as a pretext to some other sort of investigation, and these stops have been ruled constitutional by the Supreme Court as long as there was reasonable suspicion to conduct the traffic stop in the first place. Along with the 64 arrests for new crimes, troopers also arrested 75 people who had outstanding arrest warrants. Law enforcement officers that locate wanted individuals do not even need probable cause to stop or detain, as the courts have held that you essentially lose many of your Fourth Amendment rights if you have a valid arrest warrant. This is true even if the arrest warrant was issued in error or never issued at all, as the only factor that matters is whether the officer reasonably believed you had a valid arrest warrant at the time of the seizure. Moral of this story is that if you have an arrest warrant or are traveling with a currently illegal substance such as marijuana, avoiding the main beach routes over the holidays might be in your best interest.

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thirteen-bags-of-marijuana-found-in-taxi-cabSix suspects have been charged with numerous drug crimes after local and federal police officers busted a large-scale marijuana distribution ring operating out of multiple quiet suburban neighborhoods. While the operation was based Montgomery County, where the charges have been filed, the six young men allegedly operated out of numerous storehouses for their product in other areas such as Baltimore County and even Virginia. According to police, the pot would be shipped in from California or Oregon and delivered to various homes in nondescript packages by the U.S. Postal Service. A network of dealers would then spread the product around, sometimes using Uber as their method of transportation. Montgomery County Police and the Postal Police worked together on the investigation, which yielded a seizure of upwards of 85 pounds of pot worth over $300,000 on the street. Although multiple people have been charged, investigators believe they have singled out the mastermind of the operation, a 22 year-old man who lives in Hagerstown.

The young man from Washington County was recently indicted on two felony drug trafficking counts, including the rarely used drug kingpin statute. This law was created to deter drug trafficking in Maryland, although it would be hard to argue it has been successful. The drug kingpin law targets those defendants that are alleged to be the organizers, financers or managers of a large conspiracy to bring controlled substances into the state for distribution. The penalties upon conviction are extremely harsh, and can in fact carry a stiffer sentence than violent crimes such as armed robbery and even second-degree murder. A drug kingpin defendant faces up to forty years in prison and an exorbitant one million dollar fine, but the real kicker is the 20-year minimum mandatory sentence that must be imposed upon conviction, and is not parole eligible. To put it into perspective, a person convicted of robbery with a firearm will spend 5 years in prison without being eligible for parole, while a typical second-degree murder convict could expect between 15 and 40 years of parole eligible incarceration. But under Maryland law a non-violent large-scale marijuana dealer faces an obscene two decades in prison, which unfortunately was not modified in the Justice Reinvestment Act that goes into effect this year.

Despite the fact that the young marijuana mogul faces an uphill battle in court, he will thankfully not likely have to contend with a 20-year minimum sentence. The alleged Hagerstown drug runner was also charged with importation of a controlled dangerous substance or CDS under Maryland criminal law 5-614. This statute covers trafficking large amounts of all types of drugs including marijuana, cocaine and heroin. Under this law, transporting between 5 and 45 kilograms of pot falls under the section with a 10-year maximum punishment. While it is not a guarantee, the state will probably use the kingpin statute as a deterrent to having prove the case at what will undoubtedly be a complex and time consuming trial. They will probably offer a plea to the transportation statute, which carries twice the prison exposure as the standard marijuana distribution/ possession with intent law, and does not carry a minimum mandatory sentence. This is clearly just an educated guess, but it would seem like reasonable plea offer if after going over the discovery it’s clear that the state can actually prove its case. The Blog will follow this case as is progresses through the circuit court in Rockville, and we may most a follow up article if necessary.

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swimmers-79592_960_720Whether you love or hate the Olympics, most people would agree they were beginning to run their course. The past three weeks were filled with inspirational stories and domination by a pair of Maryland athletes, but Rio also produced its share of bizarre incidents and conspiracies. The latter seemed to steal many of the headlines, which is not surprising considering our appetite for scandals. No single event, including record setting performances on the track or in the pool, generated more news headlines than the American swimmers’ run in with an armed gas station security guard. At first it was reported that the swimmers were targeted by police impersonators and robbed at gunpoint, which was odd considering the alleged victims still had possession of their cell phones and jewelry. Then it was reported that the entire story was made up, and the swimmers were never robbed. While we still don’t have every detail, there are enough facts out there to generate a legal discussion about what crimes where actually committed that night. To keep the discussion relevant we will act as if the incident happened in Maryland, as the Blog does not claim to be an expert in the criminal laws of other states, much less other countries.

It seems fairly clear that the swimmers engaged in some sort of criminal activity before they were confronted by employees of the gas station. Whether their actions would have actually resulted in arrest or prosecution is debatable, but based on the evidence the swimmers could have been guilty of at least three criminal violations. Urination in public is illegal in Maryland, but unlike other states that have UIP laws, there is not a specific state criminal statute that addresses this conduct. Some local governments such as Prince George’s County have ordinances that cover this act, and in PG County it happens to be a civil citation. In order for an officer to arrest a person under state law for relieving themselves in public, he or she would have to charge the suspect with indecent exposure under section 11-107. This is a misdemeanor that carries a maximum three-year sentence, and is obviously a criminal charge that would look horrible on anyone’s rap sheet. A police officer could also arrest someone for using a public transportation vehicle as his or her own personal bathroom, which is a misdemeanor that carries a 90-day jail sentence under section 7-705 of the transportation code. It is unclear whether the swimmers actually damaged any property, but if they did then destruction of property and or disorderly conduct charges could follow.

While we do not know exactly what happened in or around the bathroom, it is absolutely clear that the swimmers became robbery victims at some point in the night. Robbery is a simple crime to define; it’s an unlawful taking of someone’s property with force. Many people can think of it as a theft plus an assault. If you throw a weapon into the equation you are left with an armed robbery, and if that weapon happens to be a working operable firearm then there could be an additional charge for using a firearm during the commission of a crime of violence. The gentleman that pulled a gun on the swimmers and demanded money without a doubt committed an armed robbery. If there were others standing next to the gun toting security guard then they too committed an armed robbery. There are very few valid legal defenses to a crime such as this, and none would apply here. The “security guard” was not acting in self-defense or the defense of others, and he certainly was not under duress. If this incident had happened in Maryland the man with the gun and any accomplices would have been arrested and charged with upwards of three felonies. Our government would have issued an apology to the admittedly foolish swimmers rather than extort them out of $11,000.

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squad-car-1209719_960_720What began as a small-scale prostitution investigation confined to Prince George’s County soon escalated into one of the largest statewide human trafficking busts in years. The PG County Police assigned undercover officers to track and arrest those suspected of harboring young women and then later forcing them in engage in prostitution in the area. What these officers found turned out to be much more than a local conspiracy, and the job soon became too large for just one police department to handle. The Maryland State Police and the Attorney General’s Office eventually became involved after it was discovered that the criminal enterprise was expanding outside of Prince George’s County to Baltimore and even Virginia.

The investigation recently concluded with two men and one woman being indicted on multiple criminal counts including human trafficking and receiving earnings from prostitution. Human trafficking and prostitution are both misdemeanors, with the former carrying a 10-year maximum jail sentence, but the defendants have much more to worry about as all three have also been indicted on counts involving human trafficking of a minor. This charge is classified as a felony under Maryland law, and carries a maximum sentence of 25 years in prison. The female 35-year old defendant is currently in custody and being held on a $300,000 bond, while the 42-year old male defendant is in jail on a $500,000 bond. The 26-year old male defendant is still at large after a warrant was issued for his arrest. All three will face trial in the Circuit Court of Prince George’s County and could be prosecuted by the AG’s Office or the State’s Attorney.

The allegations stem from the posting of online ads on websites such as backpages.com, which attempted to lure women who were down on their luck and desperate for money. The ads allegedly promised the repayment of all debts, and even a shot at modeling. Once the female targets would respond to the adds, the three defendants would allegedly take them in and offer them money and protection.  But the seemingly generous treatment by the defendants would come at a high price, as the three allegedly used threats to keep the women financial hostage by keeping their money and credit cards. The women were allegedly coerced or intimidated to engage in prostitution in order to keep a large flow of money to the defendants. In once instance, prosecutors accused the defendants of paying for a women to take a bus trip up to Maryland from North Carolina, and then refusing to let her leave because she was in their debt.

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annapolis-237078_960_720This past week the Governor’s Office in Annapolis announced that $3 million in state funds would be dedicated toward fighting the heroin epidemic in Maryland. Nearly a third of that money will provide funding for newly assigned heroin coordinators in law enforcement agencies across all regions of the state. The other $2 million plus will continue to fund the Safe Streets Initiative, a criminal offender based information sharing system that debuted in Anne Arundel County in 2008, and later expanded to Salisbury in 2010. There are now nine jurisdictions taking part in the initiative, which will receive tax dollars specifically dedicated toward the treatment and recovery of drug offenders. Five of the safe streets jurisdictions will acquire funds to hire peer recovery specialists.

The increased funding and the hiring of treatment specialists fall in line with the recommendations of the Heroin & Opioid Emergency Task Force, an initiative championed by Governor Larry Hogan. The governor has taken a hardline stance on the heroin epidemic in Maryland since being elected, and one of his first moves was to sign an executive order establishing the task force back in January of 2015. The eleven-member task force released 33 recommendations this past December, and now state officials are mobilizing to make these recommendations reality. In addition to expanding treatment and recovery options, the funds will also support the designation of the Baltimore-Washington High Intensity Drug Trafficking Area as the epicenter of the war on heroin. All drug related intelligence gathered by law enforcement around the state will flow through the metro area headquarters where it will be indexed and analyzed. In theory this will facilitate the tracking and eventual arrest of suspected drug traffickers and street level dealers. It remains to be seen whether the money would be better spend by simply hiring more qualified police officers, and encouraging them to communicate with other departments.

The governor’s war on heroin certainly creates buzz and headlines, and gives the impression that the state is at least trying to curb the heroin epidemic. But there are still far more headlines about drug overdoses and drug busts. Just days ago a man died from an apparent drug overdose at a Worcester County hospital after being taken into custody by Ocean City police. He was arrested on CDS possession with intent to distribute charges after police located 1,500 packets of heroin in his vehicle. Headlines like these have become so commonplace that it seems like the state’s war on heroin is going in the wrong direction. And as the federal government can attest to, the war on drugs is simply a never ending battle, and adding more cops and making more arrests is arguably not the correct path to victory. It could be even be argued that arresting drug dealers just keeps the price of heroin high, thus making it more attractive for others to start dealing.

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pokemon-1543354_960_720A little over one month after its release the Pokémon Go craze is still in full effect across America. The interactive smartphone game app recently surpassed 100 million downloads since early July, and now the average smartphone user spends more time playing the game per day than they do browsing Facebook, Twitter and Instagram. The app generates over $10 million per day in revenue for Apple, Google the developers, and has been praised for motivating players to take to the streets and be active. The app has also generated its fair share of criticism though for distracting drivers hunting for Pokémon while in the car, and causing pedestrians to be so engaged in the game that they disregard their surroundings and injure themselves. In addition, the game has encouraged computer hackers to develop fake versions containing viruses and malware that can affect Android phones. But perhaps the most concerning consequence of the game’s popularity is that it has turned users into potential victims of theft and robbery.

Last week the University of Maryland Police arrested a young man suspected of robbing three college students within an hour while they were playing Pokémon Go on campus. The man allegedly used a feature in the game that locates other players using the phone’s GPS. Police released video surveillance of the suspected robber and he was apprehended about two weeks later. The suspect’s home was searched after his arrest and detectives confiscated evidence, which supported charges including four counts of armed robbery and other counts of theft and first and second-degree assault. The 22 year-old defendant is scheduled for a preliminary hearing later this month at the Prince George’s County District Court in Upper Marlboro, and his defense will be tougher given the fact that he is not a first time offender; he was convicted of theft in Allegany County a little over three years ago. Although none of the victims were injured and it does not appear that a firearm was used in the alleged robberies, the Pokémon robber still faces a battle to avoid a lengthy prison sentence.

While these Pokémon robberies in College Park appear to be isolated incidents carried out by one individual, they are not the first and probably won’t be the last around the country. Four men were recently arrested in Missouri for robbing Pokémon Go players at gunpoint, and other similar thefts have been reported in Texas and California. Although the game has created a criminal opportunity for thieves and robbers, smartphones in general have long created opportunity for robbers who tend to pray on those who seem too engulfed in their phone to be aware of their surroundings. The message from law enforcement is not to stop playing the game, but rather to look around and be aware, especially while walking around at night. The Blog will continue to follow this Prince George’s County case, and other crimes involving Pokémon Go. We may post a follow up article in the future so stay tuned.

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police-378255_960_720While Maryland is hardly the foremost state when it comes to progressive marijuana policies, it has experienced a significant evolution over the past five years. In 2010 possession of trace amounts of marijuana was punishable by up to a year in jail, and medical marijuana was still a pipedream. As it stands now possession of small amounts of pot and the paraphernalia accompanying it is no longer a crime, and we are weeks away from the first grow facilities and dispensaries receiving their official licenses. Despite these significant changes to criminal laws, modified marijuana rules for the workplace have not yet taken shape.

Many employers in the public and private sector still drug test their employees for the presence of marijuana, and a positive test can cost someone their job. This has become a highly publicized issue in the National Football League, which has teams in states where marijuana use is legal. It is also an issue with respect to government jobs, where teachers, utility workers, court staff and many others face antiquated drug testing policies that punish marijuana use but don’t mention a thing about alcohol. No public sector job is as restrictive as law enforcement when it comes to marijuana use, which is understandable save for the fact that many law enforcement agencies focus on past pot use rather than current use. Maryland has some of the harshest regulations concerning prior marijuana use for its police officers, and at least one police chief believes it’s time for a change.

weed4The Maryland Police Training Commission, which is responsible for establishing hiring regulations for all law enforcement agencies in the state outright disqualifies any applicant that has used marijuana more than 20 times, or more than 5 times after turning age 21. This policy has been in place since the 70’s, and was likely in response to then President Nixon declaring a national war on drugs in 1971. Forty years later the rigid hiring restrictions are still in place, and the Baltimore City Police chief is tired of turning away otherwise qualified applicants based on honest answers in their cadet applications. The city chief has suggested that the rule be changed to prohibit hiring only those that have used marijuana in the past 3 years. This is definitely a step in the right direction, and the chief should be commended for speaking out against this arcane regulation. In reality though this suggestion still comes up short in where we need to be in 2016.

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motocross-1461530_960_720Police officers in the Baltimore and D.C. metropolitan area have been trying to crack down on illegal dirt bike riding for years, but have little to show for their efforts. It seems this brand of illegal riding is as popular as ever, as it’s hard to take a daytime drive around the city without encountering a group of teenagers and young adults popping dirt bike wheelies in the street. The riding has become a nuisance for motorists and residents in the area, and police have responded by citing or arresting the riders and confiscating their bikes. This has been an ongoing thorn in the side of the police, but the problem has not really risen to a critical level until recently. The heightened concern is not only due to an increased amount of injuries to pedestrians and the riders themselves, but also the astronomical rise in the number of dirk bike thefts being reported in the metro area. It seems that urban riding has become so popular that it has created a lucrative illegal market for the bikes, which can in some instances cost as much as a car. Numerous thefts have been reported in Montgomery County, Frederick County, and in Baltimore City. The thieves have become organized and determined, sometimes following actual dirt bike riders home from the track, or researching where they live. One professional rider in Montgomery County had two bikes stolen from his house with an estimated total value of over $25,000.

In addition to becoming organized and determined, the market for bikes has caused some brazen behavior from thieves. Recently a group of young men actually broke into the Baltimore City impound, where bikes confiscated by police are stored. This group of ten young men were met by an unarmed security guard who could do little to stop the thieves other than call for backup. Six of the young men were arrested, but the other four got away with stolen property. One of the thieves allegedly flashed a handgun to the security guard as he gave chase. Outrage from the community and frustration from the police department has prompted the creation of a special police dirt bike task force to combat illegal riding in Baltimore City streets. This will undoubtedly lead to more arrests and more confiscated bikes, but as the popularity of street riding explodes it seems we are far from seeing an end to this activity.

The Blog will continue to follow cases involving illegal street riding in Baltimore and the surrounding areas. We will also follow cases of dirt bike theft as well. Those arrested for stealing dirt bikes will face the charge of motor vehicle theft, which is a felony with a maximum penalty of five years in jail. These defendants could also face felony theft over $1,000 and burglary charges.  Many of the defendants are actually juveniles, and based on their age they could be tried as adults.  The riders often face numerous traffic offenses such as driving an uninsured vehicle, driving without a license, and driving an unregistered motor vehicle. Some traffic charges related to illegal street riding carry jail sentences, expensive fines and points, which can lead to valid licenses being suspended by the MVA. Benjamin Herbst is a Baltimore criminal defense attorney who handles motor vehicle theft and burglary cases in all state and federal courts in Maryland including juvenile criminal court. Contact Benjamin for a free consultation about your case at 410-207-2598.