The bail review process in Maryland could be headed for some major changes as the current system is slated for review in the Court of Appeals on March 7th. Nearly eight years ago a group of detainees in the Baltimore City jail filed a class action lawsuit challenging the state's bail review process. Specifically they challenged the first appearance procedure where a recently arrested defendant goes before a court commissioner for a bail review. Under the current state law no detainee is entitled to an attorney at this first appearance, and the commissioner is free to make whatever determination he or she decides. Court commissioners are not judges or lawyers, and no legal experience is required for the job. The ones who typically suffer are poor, non violent offenders who can be forced to sit in custody for days or even weeks on bails as low as a few hundred dollars. But it's not only the poor who suffer, as some commissioners have the tendency to impose egregiously high bail amounts for cases without putting forth the effort to completely examine the circumstances of the case. The issue scheduled for debate is whether having an attorney present at the commissioner bail reviews would prevent unjust and unnecessary pre-trial detention, and if the cost to provide lawyers at these hearings is worth the potential benefit.
It seems that sparks fly and countless news headlines appear each time the marijuana debate hits the floors of the state legislature. This past week was no different, as a spirited discussion drew unprecedented crowds, which spilled into the hallways of the Maryland State House. The issue of changing the state's archaic and costly pot laws has been the same for the past couple of years, but new and unpredictable drama arises each time this topic is up for discussion. On Tuesday in Annapolis, state lawmakers were joined by cops, college students, parents, and professionals, and each had strong opinions on the subject. Some of these opinions were based on personal experience, such as the parent who testified that her son's career opportunities had been damaged by a prior arrest possession of about ten grams of marijuana. There was also a college student who described the embarrassing and degrading experience of being arrested, strip searched, and jailed for pot possession.
The state Senate recently passed a bill that would ban the sale of grain alcohol throughout Maryland. The bill passed by a wide margin, 37 to 10 to be exact, and now awaits a vote in the House of Delegates before reaching the governor's desk. This same bill passed the Senate each of the last two legislative sessions, but failed to gain momentum, and ultimately stalled in the House. This year may be different though, as the chairman of a House subcommittee on alcoholic beverages has publicly backed the bill and will no doubt try to convince his colleagues of the bill's merit. The main goal of the grain alcohol ban is to lower the risk of binge drinking fatalities, injuries, and legal incidents such as DUI and even date rape on college campuses where grain alcohol is popular. The product is most commonly sold under the label of Everclear, which is 190 proof or 95 percent alcohol. It is commonly mixed with fruit juice or other mixers and placed in a large cooler for consumption. The argument from supporters of the ban is that college students have no idea how much alcohol there are consuming, and often drink more than they intend. Whether the grain alcohol itself is to blame is a question that is subject to much debate.
The legislative session has been underway for more than a month, and few fireworks have come out of Annapolis. Occasionally a story pops up about a group standing in opposition of Maryland's strict gun laws. This past month we have seen a proposal to repeal a pro-slavery law from the 1800's. There have also been the somewhat odd headlines such as the five-cent chicken tax proposed by the General Assembly, and Delegate Dwyer's ridiculous proposal that all active lawmakers be subject to a minimum mandatory jail sentence upon receiving a DUI conviction. But just like last year, the real stories coming out of our state's capital have to do with marijuana legislation. The Blog didn't set out to exclusively cover the progress of pot laws in Maryland, and we are by no means an exclusive marijuana blog. In fact we would love to spread the articles across various criminal law topics such as DUI, gun control, and police corruption. But marijuana politics simply cannot be ignored, and this week is no different. While our readers fully are aware of democratic gubernatorial candidate Heather Mizeur stance on the issue (for those who have not read our most recent post) two more prominent political figures have come out in support of changing our marijuana laws, and changing them now.
A few months back we posted an article about a Maryland gubernatorial candidate who came out in support of marijuana legalization. Heather Mizeur, who is currently serving as a delegate in the state legislature, made numerous headlines with her public stance on legalized pot. Now the democrat from Montgomery County is in the news again for powerful opinions on the criminal justice system. Mizeur recently released a detailed plan, which calls for modifications to sentencing guidelines and incarceration terms of adult and juvenile criminal defendants. The plan questions the effectiveness of Maryland's so called tough on crime policies that have resulted in thousands of prison sentences for non-violent offenders. Mizeur refers to her plan as taking a holistic and transformational approach to the criminal justice system. In other words, she believes that rehabilitation and crime prevention, and not punishment, should be the main function of the criminal justice system. This approach is commonplace in many liberal states across the country, but the current administration, including O'Malley and Brown, do not share the same sentiments on crime and punishment.
One of the busiest and most densely populated areas in Baltimore County is quickly becoming one of the most dangerous as well. Towson is the county seat or capital of Maryland's third largest county, and is home to over 55,000 residents. The population is on the steady incline, and new residential development projects promise to bring a dramatic population increase over the next decade. Towson is typically regarded as a low crime area, and although the thousands of college students studying at Towson University and Goucher College can cause a little trouble from time to time, most of the crime in the area is limited to minor drug and alcohol offenses. But recent figures released by the Baltimore County Police suggest that violent crime may be rearing its ugly head in the area.
It certainly did not take long for the first marijuana focused headlines to come out of Annapolis. The legislature has only been in session for a couple of weeks, and there are already two prospective pot laws generating chatter among state law makers. The first being a proposal to legalize, tax and regulate the drug similar to what Colorado and Washington state have already done. A democratic state senator from Montgomery County and a democratic delegate from Baltimore City have co-sponsored the proposal. The proposed law is entitled The Marijuana Control Act of 2014, and one of its main goals is to take money out of the hands of gangs and drug dealers and channel this revenue into public causes. Tax money from the legal sale of marijuana would be earmarked for school construction, drug education, and drug and alcohol treatment programs. In its current form the Marijuana Control Act would allow adults 21 and older to possess up to an ounce of pot for their own personal use, and also allow growing up to six plants within the home. Smoking in public would still be illegal, as would driving under the influence, and unauthorized sale or distribution.
The 2014 Maryland Legislature is officially open for business, and day one provided a few headlines worth discussing. The most notable being governor O'Malley's comments in opposition of marijuana legalization. O'Malley was quoted as saying he is "not much in favor of it", and that it could be "a gateway to even more harmful behavior". The democratic governor spoke about the damaging consequences of drug addiction, particularly in Baltimore, where he was once mayor. The issue of legalized pot is especially relevant this week in light of Colorado recently allowing the first retail purchasing of marijuana in almost 80 years. It appears from the governor's comments that Maryland is not headed in the same direction, at least not this year. But some lawmakers, such as the state senate's president, firmly believe that legalization will eventually become realty in our state. Decriminalization, which still makes pot possession illegal but not a jailable offense, may be in the cards much sooner. A decriminalization law would likely subject offenders to civil fines and possible drug treatment, but would take incarceration off the table. This approach has already gained support from the state senate, and could potentially garner increased support form the house this year. The governor has not offered his opinion on decriminalization specifically. The official word from O'Malley's office is that he would consider such a bill if it passes the general assembly. In addition, the governor did affirmatively state he would consider modifications to the state medical marijuana program, which is light-years away from becoming functional.
For thousands of marijuana smokers in Colorado and around the country, 9 a.m. on New Years Day was exponentially more exciting than midnight the night before. The morning of January 1st, 2014 marked the first time in recent American history that stores were able to legally sell pot to the public. Any adult can now walk up to the counter of one of the state's 136 marijuana retail shops and purchase up to an ounce of pot for their personal use. Out of state residents are restricted to buying one quarter of an ounce, but regardless shopkeepers will not ask for prescriptions and medical use cards are no longer necessary, as the buyer simply needs to be 21. Many of the state's licensed shops experienced a good bit of fanfare upon selling their first legal bags, as media outlets were on hand all over the state. Bright lights and cameras surrounded the first purchase, which was made by a U.S. Marine Corps veteran who suffers from post-traumatic stress disorder. PTSD is not a valid disability under many state's current medical marijuana laws, and was not covered by Colorado's.
A completely objective means to measure one state's gun laws against another simply does not exist. There is no cut and dry way to compare laws that are worded differently, and more importantly enforced differently. But academic institutions and lobbyist groups nonetheless love to take the abstract and put it into a study or a survey that appears to show concrete conclusions. While it's not science, these studies do serve the purpose of generating conversation. Organizations perform the work, issue press releases, and then the news outlets report to the public. And sometimes, if the issue is relevant, a lowly legal blog will continue the discussion. The discussion to be had revolves around the Brady Campaign to Prevent Violence, and its ranking of state gun laws for 2013. The Brady Campaign is the self-proclaimed largest anti gun violence grassroots organization in the country. The organization has been around since the 1970's but took the Brady name in 2001 with the mission of reforming the gun industry through legislative influence. The 2013 rankings slot Maryland as having the fourth toughest gun laws, only behind California, Connecticut, and New Jersey. The study incorporates a points system based on numerous categories, and even gives out academic letter grades; Maryland merely received an A- and no state received an outright A.
Two months ago a Baltimore County jury found a city police officer guilty of reckless endangerment in a bizarre and tragic training accident. Yesterday that police officer was sentenced to 60 days in jail and 2 years of reporting probation by a circuit court judge. The incident occurred just under one year ago at an abandoned state mental health facility. Several city police officers and trainees traveled to the county in order to use the facility as a tactical operations training ground. The cops were told to use training guns loaded with paintballs rather than bullets. And according to the incident reports all were using these simulated ammunition or simunition type weapons. All but a 19-year veteran of the force who fired his loaded firearm into a gathering of trainees huddled by a window. The bullet struck a young trainee in the head, resulting in severe brain damage and the loss of sight in one eye. County police and the state's attorney conducted a thorough investigation of the incident and charged the officer with second-degree assault and reckless endangerment. The defendant and his attorney elected to go to jury trial, undoubtedly after attempts to have the case dropped prior to trial failed. At the close of the four day trial, the jury game back with a guilty verdict on the reckless endangerment charge. The defendant was found not guilty on the second-degree assault count, which actually carries a greater maximum sentence of 10 years in jail compared to the 5-year max for reckless endangerment. Both charges are misdemeanors in Maryland.
The FBI recently announced that 9 Baltimore County residents and two New Yorkers have been indicted on federal drug and conspiracy to traffic contraband cigarette charges. The contraband cigarette allegations are definitely not part of your run of the mill federal criminal case. But just because cigarettes are legal does not mean they can't be the subject of a highly profitable scam. In fact, the FBI alleged that the illegal tobacco trafficking ring netted upwards of 6 million dollars for the co-conspirators. All but one of the defendants face up to five years for the tobacco charges, and some were also indicted on charges for conspiracy to traffic oxycodone and money laundering. The scam was highly profitable for an extended period of time, but like most theft schemes, it all came crashing down as the defendant's became too profit hungry and dead set on raking in large amounts of cash. The indictment came back from the grand jury last week, and was unsealed yesterday after the arrest of 8 defendants, and the execution of 12 search warrants. Contained within the indictment are the details of just how the Pikesville and Owings Mills residents teamed up with two New Yorkers to carry out their scam.
The city of Baltimore will not soon forget 2013. A year that started out on such a high note for the city with the Ravens winning the Super Bowl quickly went the opposite direction in months that followed. During the spring and summer Baltimore was in and out of national headlines due to a large-scale jailhouse corruption ring. And in the last few months the city has witnessed a major uptick in gang related violent crime and homicide. From the middle of October to the middle of November there were a staggering 29 murders. The city has responded by enacting a new 5-year anti crime policy that was made public by the police commissioner and the mayor one week before the Thanksgiving holiday. The plan, which is laid out in a 192-page report, will shift the majority of law enforcement focus to gangs, guns, and repeat violent offenders. Although specific tactics and techniques were not fully explained, officials expect that improvements in intelligence gathering and cooperation with other law enforcement agencies will make for more effective policing. Unfortunately though for the citizens of Baltimore press releases and hundred page reports will not suppress crime automatically. Only officers out on the streets can accomplish this goal, but a shortage of qualified officers may prove to be a challenging hurdle.
Anne Arundel County Police reported that four people have been arrested in an attempted copper heist in Odenton. Cops were called at around midnight when an assisted living home employee noticed two men running across the home's property carrying cable. Police arrived as the getaway car was leaving the scene, and were able to stop the car and apprehend the two men. Cops also found another man and a woman in the car. All four thieves, who range in age from 24 to 32, were arrested after 250 feet of copper cable along with tree trimmers were found in their possession. Each member of the group has been charged with malicious destruction of property and theft. One of the crew was also charged with making a false statement to a police officer and using a fake identification to avoid prosecution. This same individual was also arrested on a probation violation. This incident was more than just a run of the mill theft gone wrong. As a direct result of the crew's actions more than 1,700 residents temporarily lost electricity. The thieves did not actually cut through live wires, but the wires they did cut fell onto live wires, which were severed. BGE was able to restore power that same night.
The Blog posted numerous articles on the progress of marijuana legislation during this past legislative session. There were progressive ideas thrown around in the Senate and the House, but neither legalization nor decriminalization bills passed the General Assembly. The only bill to cross the governor's desk last spring was the complex medical marijuana law that will not be functional for a few years, if ever. The Medical Marijuana Commission, which was established by lawmakers to oversee the program, has met three times to hammer out the details of how to get legal pot to patients in need. But little progress has been made and no resolution is in sight. At this point there are simply too many hurdles to get the program off and running. Readers will recall that the medical marijuana law only authorizes academic medical facilities or hospitals to run the program, but the two largest of these facilities, Hopkins and University of Maryland, want no part of it. There is also an issue with how the hospitals that choose to participate would get their supply of pot. The law allows the hospitals to buy from the federal government, which would be great if the federal government was selling. And they're not. State licensed pot growers would also be allowed to sell to the hospitals, but at this point there are none. It's clear that a Maryland resident will not be able to acquire legal pot anytime in the near future; that is unless a more progressive law passes the General Assembly next year. One politician with aspirations to be the next governor has recently publicized her desire for this to happen.