Law enforcement officers make dozens of drug distribution busts each day in Maryland. State and local police handle most, as only a select few of these busts are carried out by federal law enforcement. Federal agencies such as the DEA could investigate and prosecute any would be drug offender under federal law, but they often defer to state level cops unless the case is large and involves multiple states. Even when these busts are juicy enough for the feds, the media rarely picks up on them, and most go unnoticed by the public. Therefore when the United States Attorney's Office issues a press release about a drug bust that is picked up by almost every local news agency, you know the facts must be particularly scandalous. This past week's Baltimore drug bust definitely fit the bill, as assistant US attorney Rosenstein announced indictments in a multi-state cocaine trafficking operation, which involved tons of drugs, millions of dollars, fancy cars, and money laundering. The investigation had everything the media could ask for in a story, and the bulk of the alleged criminal activity occurred right here in Baltimore.
Anne Arundel County Police have arrested two suspects in remarkably bizarre incident involving a stolen public school bus. The bus was reported stolen at about 5:30 in the morning on Tuesday, as school employees reported to the lot to begin their morning student pickup. Employees at the bus lot notified police and school officials as soon as they noticed the missing vehicle. The first concern for both was the safety of the children, as there was fear that the at large bus thieves could try to pick up and perhaps abduct school children. Parents were notified early in the morning and were told not to have their children wait for the bus. After parents were alerted and concerns over the children subsided, police turned their attention to searching for the missing bus. Not surprisingly, a helicopter spotted the stolen bright yellow school bus a few hours after the search commenced. The final resting point was an unpaved access road underneath electrical towers. Further investigation revealed that the bus was badly damaged and there was even evidence the suspects tried to light it on fire before fleeing the scene. Police used surveillance video and information from a witness to locate and apprehend the two suspects in the area where the bus was found. The video reportedly depicted a visibly intoxicated male and female breaking into bus at around 3:30 am and then driving it through the parking lot gate. While it is unclear how they started the bus, police did see evidence that multiple other buses were vandalized before the couple settled on one to take for their joy ride. The suspects are currently in jail and facing numerous criminal charges including theft, burglary, arson, and destruction of property. A preliminary hearing is set on November 5th in the district court in Annapolis.
Soon after the close of each year's legislative session the governor signs dozens of bills into law. The public typically hears about these new laws at the three main stages when the media can report a concrete story. First we read about a bill being introduced in the house or senate, which is usually in January. Then there's an article or two about the bill's passage by the General Assembly a couple months later, and finally we hear about the governor signing on the dotted line in the spring. After the governor signs the bills there is a yearly downtime that usually lasts about six months until the fall when the laws go into effect. In some years there is no buildup to the October 1st effective date because the new laws simply don't generate enough interest. This year is not one of those years. It's the criminal laws that often receive the most attention, and in 2014 there were a host of them that the public and media were following. No new law has received as much press as marijuana decriminalization, and although as times it seemed like a pipedream, as of today we can officially say it is not a crime to possess less than 10 grams of pot in Maryland.
Back in the spring when Maryland's revamped medical marijuana law passed the General Assembly it wasn't just the thousands of patients suffering from debilitating medical conditions that rejoiced. Hundreds of potential investors immediately began to salivate over potential profits from legalized pot here in Maryland. There are millions to be made on the business side of medical marijuana, and with twenty states already selling pot the profits are hardly speculative. At the first few meetings of the medical marijuana commission you couldn't find a parking spot or a seat, and the meeting room was filled to the brim with a mix of suit clad businessmen, dreadlocked hippies, and casually dressed visitors with unidentifiable motives. The meetings were moved from Baltimore to Annapolis to accommodate the larger crowds, but it seems there have been fewer potential investors in attendance as of late. Details about the application process have slowly trickled out to the public, and to some it may seem like an insurmountable task to submit a competitive application for a grower's license. And this past week another not so small detail emerged, which may have turned even more potential growers and distributors away.
As the Medical Marijuana Commission inches closer to establishing a viable program in Maryland, there are still numerous key details that need to be hammered out. The Commission was established soon after the governor signed the revised medical marijuana bill into law, and its fifteen members were tasked with drafting regulations for the program. These regulations were supposed to be handed over to the health secretary and a group of state lawmakers this week, but now it appears the commission will seek public comment before submitting the program regulations for formal review. The commission made the draft regulations available to the public by posting them on the DHMH website, and they have already received abundant feedback. The four page PDF, which can be found here, outlines the application process for obtaining a growers license in Maryland, and the criteria for which applications will be judged. Those reading the draft application for the first time may be surprised just how demanding the process will be, and the commission can afford to be selective considering there will be only fifteen licenses awarded in the next two years.
Heroin use throughout the Baltimore metropolitan area has been on the rise for the last few years, and now the national media has taken notice. A recent episode of National Geographic Channel's television series Drugs Inc., was filmed in Baltimore, and documented just how out of control the heroin epidemic has become in the city. The show dubbed Baltimore the heroin capital of America, and while there is no statistical evidence to support this dramatic claim, there is certainly enough evidence to prove at least the presence of an epidemic. The Blog has posted a few articles about the increasing popularity of heroin, which is attributed to a variety of factors including the low cost and a high supply of the dangerous drug. Stricter regulations on prescription narcotics have also been a major factor in the recent heroin boom, as it has become more expensive and more difficult for drug users to secure their once plentiful supply of oxycodone and other similar narcotics on the street. Doctors and pharmacies have become less inclined to prescribe and dispense these highly addictive painkillers, thus leading to a decline of legal and illegal sales. The television show touched on this fact and also credited increased education and awareness of prescription medication addiction as other factors for lower abuse rates. Less abuse of prescription narcotics may have come at a steep price though, and not only in Baltimore, but also in the surrounding suburbs.
Each summer since 1975 the Maryland State Police has issued a Uniform Crime Report for statewide crime over the past year. This year's UCR was released to the governor earlier this summer, and later published online and in press releases. The overall conclusion of the report was positive in the eyes of law enforcement, and the various headlines reflect this attitude. A simple Google news search of last years crime rate will yield articles about decreasing statewide crime or even record crime reductions. This is based on the fact that the overall crime rate for indexed crimes from 2012 to 2013 decreased by two percent. Violent crime went down about one percent and property crime lowered by about two percent. But these headlines are only part of the picture, and to get an idea of the rest it is important to analyze the actual numbers.
A few months ago we posted an article about a criminal defense attorney who was arrested for smuggling various illegal drugs into the Baltimore County Detention Center. The police investigative reports and charging documents described a multi month conspiracy between the attorney, her son, secretary, and her current and former clients to introduce the contraband into the jail for sale and use by other inmates. Security at the Towson facility is more relaxed for attorneys who present their clearance cards upon entry, as it is not standard for the guards to thoroughly frisk lawyers. Part of the reason for this is that most visits at the jail are non-contact visits, where the attorney still must speak to the inmate through a glass wall. Contact visits typically have to be arranged ahead of time. But unlike the standard visitation area, the attorney visitation area has slits under the glass partitions so that legal documents may be passed back and forth. Though in the case of this former attorney, it wasn't just legal documents that were being passed through the slits.
The Maryland Firearms Safety Act went into effect almost one year ago, and at that time most of the news stories were centered on record sales at state gun shops, which resulted in many of the popular handgun models being sold out at local stores. There were also numerous articles about overwhelming demand for the state police to complete background checks. Those who purchased firearms prior to the October 1st, 2013 effective date were not required to submit their fingerprints, but due to the shear number of applications were still forced to wait months for law enforcement clearance. There were a few scattered articles about those in opposition to the strict law, such as the NRA and other Second Amendment lobbyist groups. Each of these groups expressed a strong desire to challenge the law, but at the time it just didn't seem as if they would have any success. Marylanders were acting as if the strict statewide gun regulations were there to stay, and last summer's rush to buy firearms proved that. And now we can officially say that the Firearms Safety Act is in fact here to stay, as a federal judge recently upheld it as constitutional in a 47-page opinion.
Just a couple months after a near unanimous vote by the city council, one of the strictest youth curfews is now officially the law of Baltimore City. Starting last Friday, all children under the age of 14 are required to be indoors at 9 p.m. every night of the week, unless accompanied by an adult. Juveniles between the ages of 14-16 must also be indoors by 10 p.m. on school nights, and at 11 p.m. on other nights. Any child caught violating the curfew will be taken to a youth connection center, where the parents or legal guardians will be notified. If the parents cannot be located then the department of social services and child protective services will become involved. Amidst national criticism, the mayor has strongly defended the curfew, stating numerous times that the intent of the law is to protect the children of Baltimore, and not to fight crime by enhancing police power. It's hard to argue with the goal of protecting the city's children, as nine children were killed this past year in Baltimore, a number that has more than doubled from last year. But still, there are those who believe the curfew is the wrong way to solve a serious problem.
Baltimore County police have been forced to arrest one of their own for the second time this summer as a 31 year-old officer now faces serious felony charges. Our regular Blog readers might remember an article published less than 6 weeks ago about a county cadet who was arrested for stealing evidence from police headquarters in Towson. That ex officer's case is still in its infancy stages after recently being forwarded to the circuit court, and already another soon to be ex cop is about to appear on the criminal docket as a defendant. Both cases are drug related, but the allegations extend far beyond simple use or possession. This latest embarrassing arrest began as a routine report of an attempted burglary, which turned out to be much more scandalous. Last week a man called 911 and reported that someone claiming to be a police officer was trying to break into his home by kicking in the door. While the burglar was not able to gain entry to the house, the man got a good enough look to give police a description of the burglar's appearance. Later that night police located the burglar after making a traffic stop on a speeding vehicle. It all seemed routine enough until the details were uncovered in the days that followed.
In the first three months of 2014 Maryland witnessed a dramatic increase in the amount of statewide drug overdose deaths. From January through March 2014 there have been 252 deaths, 148 of which were related to heroin. The total number is 33 percent higher than the first three months of last year, and remarkably is higher than the total number of traffic fatalities in the same time frame. While the majority of these deaths have occurred in areas such as Baltimore City that are quite familiar with drug overdoses, there have also been a staggering number of deaths in the suburbs. For communities in Ann Arundel, Frederick, and Harford counties drug overdoses are not commonplace, and seem to make news headlines each time they occur. The news headlines generate talk among the public, which in turn places pressure on the police and the government. Police forces around the state have already taken action, placing more emphasis on breaking up drug trafficking rings that deal with dangerous narcotics such as heroin prescription drugs. Additionally law enforcement officers are receiving thorough training on drug overdoses, and are now carrying the anti overdose medicine Narcan in their squad cars. There is no doubt that when the 2015 legislative session rolls around we will see bills specifically designed to address the increased amount of overdoses. But for now the state government has only responded in the form of an executive order from the governor's office.
While Maryland will have its day in October, possession of a small amount of marijuana has officially been decriminalized in Washington D.C. At midnight on Thursday, metropolitan police officers were ordered to keep their handcuffs in their holsters in favor of a citation booklet for all marijuana possession cases less than one ounce. And while there is still uncertainty surrounding the long-term fate of this new law, as it stands today simple possession of pot is punishable by a $25 fine, $50 less than the punishment for littering. D.C. cops have been provided with wallet sized cards for their own reminders, as well as to hand out to the public. The cards provide a general overview of the most important changes that are laid out in the Marijuana Possession Decriminalization Amendment Act of 2014. The five bullet points on the card include a line about the fine and the fact that police may confiscate the marijuana, the requirement of disclosing your name to cops upon being cited (and being subject to arrest if you refuse), the fact that smoking in public and possessing more than an ounce is still a crime, a reminder that driving under the influence of drugs is a crime, and that federal officers may still arrest anyone in the District for possession under federal law.
Maryland lawmakers made significant progress in reforming state marijuana laws in the recent legislative session. Starting in October of this year possession of less than 10 grams of pot will no longer be a criminal offense. And the medical marijuana commission is currently planning, albeit slowly, a fully functioning and accessible state sanctioned medical marijuana program. But many in favor of reform, which is well over half the population, are not completely satisfied with the work of our state government. This includes local governments and city and county police departments who have expressed concerns over flaws in the decriminalization law. In a couple months possessing small amounts of marijuana will be a civil infraction just like a speeding ticket. But the law remains unchanged when it comes to marijuana paraphernalia. Cops won't be able to arrest a person for possessing pot, but that pipe, rolling paper, and even the plastic baggie that holds it can trigger a criminal charge. This means that unless something changes smoking marijuana will remain a crime, as anything used to smoke could be considered paraphernalia.
Starling news came out of Towson two weeks ago when a 20-year old police cadet was arrested for multiple drug and theft crimes. The story became even more compelling when the public learned the alleged crime was committed at Baltimore County Police headquarters. The cadet now stands accused of stealing thousands of dollars of seized cash and narcotics, which were being held in the department's evidence locker. Among the cadet's ten charges are theft between $10,000 and $100,000 and possession with intent to distribute narcotics, both of which are felonies. The cadet's case is tentatively set for a hearing in district court later this month, but the case will almost certainly be brought before a grand jury in circuit court sometime in the next couple of weeks, and an indictment is sure to follow. It is not entirely clear how a cadet with little experience gained access to the secure evidence locker without any supervision. There is apparently full video surveillance of the locker and regular audits of its contents, but whatever the department's security measures were, they were no enough to deter or stop the cadet from completing the theft. The impact of this embarrassing incident stretches far beyond the accused and the police department, as potentially dozens of unrelated criminal cases in the county may be affected as well.