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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.

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bottles-1235327_960_720Maryland’s highest court recently released a potentially groundbreaking opinion by ruling that adults may be liable for the actions of underage drinkers whom they provided alcohol. The ruling stems from two cases involving auto accidents where intoxicated teenagers were the drivers. The plaintiff in the Baltimore County case was walking her dog when she was struck by an SUV driven by an 18-year-old that had been drinking at the home of the defendant. The defendant had allegedly provided mixed drinks to the teenaged driver, and made no effort to assure that the young man would not get behind the wheel that night. The other case stemmed from a tragic accident that occurred in Howard County back in 2009. The plaintiff is the family of a 17-year-old that was killed as he was the passenger in the flat bed of a pickup truck driven by his allegedly intoxicated friend. The lawsuit states that the driver had been drinking in the garage of the defendant’s home with full knowledge of the defendant.

Both lawsuits target a third party that is claimed to be liable for damages caused by another individual, which in these cases are the two teenaged drivers. This theory of indirect third party “social host” liability is tough to prove and until now has never been recognized in Maryland. Upwards of 20 states have dram shop laws that allow liability of establishments arising from the sale of visibly intoxicated individuals that later cause injuries to another, but our state is not one of them. While this Court of Appeals ruling does not address dram shop, it will now pave the way for future civil actions against adults that furnish alcohol to minors. The court opined that young adults under the age of 21 are not competent to handle the potentially dangerous effects of alcohol, and are more susceptible to harming themselves or others when presented with the opportunity to drink in excess. According to the court some of the onus must fall on an adult that was present, and facilitated the conduct.

This appeals court ruling addresses civil liability, and it coincidentally comes at a time when the legislator has just expanded criminal liability for adults that furnish alcohol to minors. In May the governor approved a bill that will soon allow judges to incarcerate adults for up to one year if he or she provided alcohol to an underage drinker that subsequently injures or kills another person while driving a motor vehicle. This jail time provision was not present in the old statute, which under section 10-117 of the criminal code had a maximum punishment of a $2,500 fine for a first offense and $5,000 for a second offense. There will still be fines under the new law and the possibility of a misdemeanor criminal conviction, but jail time will only become a sentencing option in there is a serious bodily injury. Some lawmakers attempted to add a jail provision regardless of the minor causing an injury, though this version did not pass the General Assembly.

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building-986994_960_720Two Maryland State’s Attorneys recently made headlines for the wrong reasons, and now both may be in jeopardy of losing their title as top prosecutor. Last week a law professor a George Washington University filed a complaint with the Attorney Grievance Commission against the Baltimore City State’s Attorney. The compliant requests that the city’s top criminal prosecutor be disbarred over her handling of the cases against five officers charged after the death of Freddie Gray. Criticisms of her actions over the last 16 months include rushing to charge the officers with insufficient evidence, and holding a highly opinionated and fiery press conference soon after that decision. The complaint also cites her decision to continue to prosecute the remaining three officers after two were found not guilty. The office has not yet commented on the complaint, citing a gag order issued by a circuit court judge last year.

Further north of Baltimore another elected State’s Attorney also finds himself in bit of hot water, and this situation could have criminal as well as professional consequences. Cecil County’s top prosecutor was recently arrested in Ocean City on charges of indecent exposure after he was allegedly seen naked on the balcony of his hotel room. Police later released the lawyer without charges after consulting the Worcester County State’s Attorney Office. While it originally appeared like a case where one colleague helped out another it certainly didn’t end that way; after a quick investigation Worcester County filed charges in the Snow Hill Circuit Court for disorderly conduct and indecent exposure. While disorderly conduct carries a lower maxim penalty than indecent exposure (60 days vs. 3 years) it is likely easier to prove, as it only requires proof that the actions of the lawyer caused a disturbance to the public. Public could mean as little as one witness, but in this case there are two civilian witnesses as evidenced by the filing of two counts of each offense.

The Cecil County prosecutor is almost definitely a first time offender, and is not likely to see the inside of the county jail. But he could face a possible criminal conviction, which would all but end his legal career. Worcester County is notorious for being tough on first offenders that tarnish the tourist town image of Ocean City. This arrest already has ended the charged lawyer’s hopes of being appointed judge, as the governor recently stated that he would no longer be considered. The prosecutor later formally withdrew his name from consideration in order to fully focus on his defense.

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cannabis-1418339__340The Maryland State Police recently announced one of the largest highway pot busts in years after two young men from Philadelphia were caught driving with over 900 pounds of marijuana. The bust began as a routine traffic stop of a U-Haul van for an alleged unsafe lane change on the northbound side of I95 near Elkton. As the trooper was conducting the traffic stop he apparently noticed suspicious signs of criminal activity, and then brought out his drug sniffing K9 to assist. The dog alerted the trooper to the presence of a controlled substance, which led to a search of the van. Considering the amount of pot that was recovered it probably didn’t take long for the trooper to locate the stash and then arrest the two unlucky travelers. As it stands now, both occupants of the van are charged with four separate criminal charges, three of which are felonies. To add insult to injury, the driver was also cited for a $90 moving violation for his alleged unsafe lane change.

The two men are charged with possession of marijuana, but this is undoubtedly the least of their troubles. Each also faces possession with intent to distribute, which carries a maximum penalty of 5 years in prison, and one count of large amount controlled dangerous substance possession. Upon conviction, this charge has a minimum sentence of 5 years, and no portion of the sentence can be suspended. While the Justice Reinvestment Act will soon phase out minimum mandatory sentences for many drug crimes, the 5-year large amount sentence will remain law. This statute includes almost every street drug, including cocaine, meth, and opioids such as heroin and oxycodone. The amount required for a “large amount” charge varies by drug, but for marijuana all that is required is 50 pounds or more.

The fourth and final charge that the two young men are facing falls under a seldom used law that makes it illegal to import certain controlled substances into the state. This offense makes it a felony punishable by up to 25 years in prison to bring large amounts of drugs into Maryland. The cutoff for marijuana is oddly 45 kilograms, which is about twice the amount required under the large amount statute. Importing between 5 and 45 kilograms of pot triggers a lower maximum jail sentence of ten years. This offense is relatively rare for state court because multi state drug trafficking cases are often handled by federal law enforcement such as the DEA. In this specific case though there was no ongoing investigation, but rather the trooper basically just stumbled upon this mega stash of pot. This offense can also create issues for the prosecution, as it is an essential element of the charge to actually prove the defendants brought drugs in from beyond the border. In this case the state will need to prove more than just the fact that the defendants are from Pennsylvania, or that the van was rented in another state.

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inside-ambulance-1319281_960_720The Maryland Department of Health and Mental Hygiene recently released its report on drug and alcohol related intoxication deaths for 2015, and the data shows multiple alarming trends. Last year was the deadliest year on record with regard to state drug and alcohol overdoses. A total of 1,259 people succumbed to high levels of intoxication in 2015, which represents a 20 percent increase from 2014 and the fifth year in a row that the number has increased. One of the most alarming trends is the high number of fentanyl related deaths that are quickly becoming a major concern across the country. Fentanyl is a powerful narcotic that became popular for treating severe localized pain through adhesive patches that are placed directly on the skin. These patches are slow acting and provide long-lasting pain relief without an intense narcotic effect. Recreational drug users have little use for the patches as intended, but have found numerous ways to extract the narcotic and combine it with other drugs such as heroin. Illicit use of fentanyl produces an intense high that can be many times more powerful than heroin, and often times more deadly. From 2007 to 2012 there were about 30 fentanyl related overdoses a year in Maryland, but the last three years have seen a dramatic increase. In 2013 and 2014 there were 58 and 186, and last year there were a shocking 340 fentanyl related deaths in the state.

Politicians and other public officials have placed more emphasis than ever on combating the heroin epidemic, and the data supports their cause. Heroin related overdose deaths once again rose dramatically in 2015, with 748 cases reported statewide. This is more than double the average number of overdoses from 2007 to 2012. In contrast, the number of prescription opioid overdose deaths from drugs such as oxycodone has remained relatively the same since 2007, especially when factoring in population increases. The same can be said for cocaine related deaths, which were actually lower last year than in 2007. Benzodiazepine overdoses from drugs such as alprazolam (Xanax) and diazepam (Valium) have risen steadily over the last 8 years, but the 91 deaths in 2015 pale in comparison to heroin and fentanyl.

Readers of the DHMH report will notice that marijuana is nowhere to be seen in any of the overdose data, yet alcohol is high up on the list of killers. Alcohol is so ingrained in our country’s culture that it continually receives a pass despite its deadly consequences. There were 309 alcohol related overdose deaths last year in Maryland, and thousands more injuries, incidents of violence, and auto accidents that were caused by alcohol intoxication. Alcohol is available on every street corner yet it’s taking our state years to formulate highly restrictive regulations on where one can grow and sell medical marijuana. While this is a bit of a tangent, it continues to baffle the Blog.

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yellow-690532_960_720Anne Arundel County Police have reported that five teenagers were arrested for attempting to steal a taxi cab in Pasadena just before midnight this past Monday. Officers responded to a call for help after a cab driver reported he was involved in a verbal dispute with the five juveniles. The argument escalated after one of the teens took the driver’s cell phone. As the cabbie attempted to take back the phone, another teen jumped into the driver’s seat of the cab and attempted to take off. The cabbie then shifted his focus from the stolen phone to the car, and was able wrestle control of the wheel away from the juvenile offender. The five teens, all ages 15 or 16, then fled the scene in different directions with the cabbie’s phone. Several police officers arrived on scene, including two Ann Arundel County Police K9 units and one Maryland State Police K9 unit, to investigate and locate the suspects. All five were later found hiding in the surrounding area and were arrested. Four of the juveniles were from Pasadena and one was from Baltimore.

Each of the juveniles was charged via citation with three criminal offenses including theft, 2nd degree assault, and unlawful taking of a motor vehicle. They were released to their parents after the booking process concluded. The five teenagers will now be brought through the juvenile criminal justice system, which will begin with an intake hearing with an officer from the Department of Juvenile Services. These intake hearings occur in the various offices of DJS, and are not held in court. An intake hearing is an informal setting where one of three outcomes is possible. After speaking with the juvenile, the parents and the juvenile’s attorney, the DJS officer can close the case and issue a warning, which is the best possible outcome for the juvenile. If the officer feels the facts of the case are too serious for a simple warning, he or she can choose to keep the case open and place the juvenile on informal supervision for 90 days. This option allows DJS to maintain some sort of authority over the juvenile without sending the case to court. The third option is for the DJS officer to recommend that the case be handled in the circuit court where the offense is occurred. The state’s attorney’s office would then take control of the case and file a petition for delinquency with the juvenile clerk.

The decisions of the intake officer are not always final. The victim, which in this case would be the cab driver, could appeal if for example he is unsatisfied that the case was not forwarded to the state’s attorney. The state’s attorney’s office could also choose to file a petition with the circuit court if they feel informal supervision is inadequate. Typically felony charges end up in the circuit court, so it is likely that at least one of the five juveniles will have their case heard in an Annapolis courtroom. Unlawful taking of a motor vehicle is a felony, as is theft over $1,000. All juvenile cases are under seal and not available to the public, so the Blog will not be able to post a follow-up on these cases, but keep checking back for criminal law news around Maryland.