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thirteen-bags-of-marijuana-found-in-taxi-cabAs states move toward placing marijuana policy in the hands of voters and for the most part legalizing it, Maryland is still stuck in the dark ages where pot ties up court resources, and has lawmakers and lawyers up in arms. Medical marijuana has already invaded the civil courts, as multiple lawsuits over the grower licensing system are pending. And while we are seeing a significantly lower amount of marijuana cases prosecuted since possession under 10 grams became decriminalized, pot is still a common cause of litigation in criminal courts. Not only are there still numerous new cases filed each year for criminal possession, manufacturing and distribution of marijuana, but there are also a host of new legal issues involving law enforcement search and seizures.

When the legislature decriminalized simple possession it immediately created a grey area for probable cause searches under the Fourth Amendment. Normally a police officer is justified to search a person and his or her automobile if the officer gathers information that objectively leads to the conclusion that that a crime has likely occurred. This, save for a few minor twists, is probable cause in a nutshell. The Maryland decriminalization law left a major ambiguity in whether the discovery of a non-criminal amount of marijuana would justify a broader search of the suspect and his or her car. These broader searches usually turn up other evidence such as narcotics and firearms, which is why the issue is far reaching. We’re not just dealing with pot cases here. In fact, the Court of Appeals in Annapolis recently heard oral arguments on three cases where officers conducted Fourth Amendment searches based solely on the odor of marijuana. The trial courts and the Special Court of Appeals all ruled in favor of the prosecution that the searches were valid, and now the highest court will issue their opinion in the next few weeks.

Defense lawyers and civil rights advocates have argued that smelling burnt or raw pot, or finding less than 10 grams of it without more does not rise to the level of evidence that a crime has occurred, and would not justify a broader search. Rather, an officer who smells or recovers a non-criminal amount of pot must issue a civil citation, confiscate the weed and move on.  The government has argued that no amount of marijuana is legal in Maryland, and therefore police are authorized to search for and seize anything unlawful. The government has emphasized that a civil offense is still an offense, and the fine for simple possession is used to punish unlawful behavior. An assistant attorney general also argued that presence of the drug is enough evidence to provide officers with probable cause that more will be found, an argument does not seem to have any sort of factual basis.

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Heroin2Officials reported five heroin overdose deaths during this past holiday week in Harford County, where the overdose rate has hit a staggering one case per week. Like other counties in Maryland, Harford County is on pace to double its number of overdoses from last year. But as state health officials and law enforcement scramble to combat the heroin epidemic there is a new threat looming that could end up being exponentially more deadly.

In previous posts we have mentioned the increased street presence of fentanyl, a powerful synthetic opioid that is 50 times more potent than heroin and an estimated 100 times stronger than morphine. Fentanyl became popular in the form of skin patches to treat severe localized pain. It didn’t take long for users to figure out that if the drug was removed from the patches it could be injected for a much stronger high, and dealers later learned that the relatively cheap fentanyl could be mixed with their heroin. Infusing small amounts of fentanyl allowed the dealers to maintain the strength of their product even when using a larger portion of cheap cutting agents. Mixing fentanyl with heroin creates a powerful and unpredictable effect on the user, and it has been the cause of hundreds of overdose deaths when mixed or injected on its own. Government officials are now beginning to take measures to combat fentanyl use, but just as they catch up on fentanyl there is a new synthetic opioid hitting the streets that is far more powerful.

In September the DEA issued a warning to the public and law enforcement about a relatively new substance named carfentanil, which was designed to tranquilize elephants and other large animals. Carfentanil showed its ugly face on the streets for the first time just months ago, and now officials are worried that its arrival in Maryland could spike overdose deaths to unthinkable levels. The concern about this particular synthetic opioid is its potency, which is estimated to be 100 times more powerful than fentanyl and 10,000 times more powerful than morphine. Carfentanil has already contributed to overdose deaths in Vancouver, and it has been discovered on U.S. streets as well. Law enforcement suspects that the drug fell into the hands of dealers by way of China, where it can allegedly be ordered online in a powder form. The powder is so potent that even handling it without gloves or a mask could trigger an overdose. Another frightening reality is that carfentanil overdoses could be deadly even if treated the anti-overdose drug naloxone. It some cases it could take as much as six times the normal dosage of naloxone to reverse a carfentanil overdose, an amount that may not be readily available to first responders and police officers.

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mobile-1726138_1280The recent arrest of two local police officers in separate felony offenses left a stain on Maryland law enforcement heading into the Thanksgiving weekend. These arrests have also served as a constant reminder that police are not above the law, at least when it comes to incidents that cannot be swept under the rug. While the cases are still in their infancy stage, both veteran officer’s careers are in jeopardy and one officer faces the possibility of a lengthy prison sentence. The arrests generated considerable news coverage despite the fact that the officers worked for departments outside of the Baltimore DC metropolitan area, and the coverage will likely continue until the cases are resolved. The crimes are serious but unfortunately not uncommon, so it’s the scandal factor with a police officer as a defendant that keeps the public’s interest.

Of the two arrests, without a doubt the most serious case involves a deputy from the Charles County Sheriff’s Office. This deputy was charged in federal court via criminal complaint with possession of child pornography, which carries a maximum punishment of 10 years in prison. The U.S. Attorney’s Office announced the complaint along with agents from Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), and Homeland Security Investigations (HSI). An investigator from the Charles County Sheriff was also credited with solving the case that began after a private cloud security company tipped off federal officials to the presence of child porn downloads on a cell phone tied to a Maryland phone number. The deputy, who has been suspended without pay, was released pending trial at his initial appearance at the federal courthouse in Greenbelt. He will not be allowed to use the internet or have unsupervised contact with minors during the course of his pre-trial release.

The second arrest involved a member of the Wicomico County Sheriff’s office, who has been charged with felony theft $10,000 to $100,000. The 53 year-old sergeant was suspended with pay as soon as his office found out about the theft, which was alleged to have occured at the local Fraternal Order of Police lodge from October of 2014 to this October. After the sergeant was arrested on November 18th he was immediately suspended without pay pending the outcome of the case. A prosecutor from the Baltimore County State’s Attorney’s Office has been specially assigned to prosecute the case, which will take place in the circuit court in Salisbury. There are no dates currently set for the case but the Blog will follow along and may post an article in the future if necessary. Theft $10,000 to $100,000 carries a maximum punishment of 15 years in prison. The sergeant likely does not have any type of criminal record, which may be enough to keep him out of jail. But should he be found guilty the sentencing judge will not take lightly the fact that the officer was in a position of trust at the FOP and egregiously violated that trust. Another factor that may contribute to a harsher sentence is the allegation of a course of illegal conduct that spanned two years. In other words, this was not an impulsive act but a continuous decision to break the law. These facts are akin to an employee theft case, and are generally treated more harshly than other theft cases.

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weed4Medical marijuana has had a tough time catching on in Maryland as roadblocks have sprung up each step of the way. First the legislature failed to craft a legitimate medical cannabis program, and a year later when a real program arrived they failed to adequately fund a commission to draft its rules. Then the underfunded and inexperienced commission drastically miscalculated the number of expected grower and distributor applications, which lead to massive delays in the awarding of licenses. When the licenses were finally awarded three potential growers sued for unjust denial of their applications, and their cases are pending in court. Many of these roadblocks were predictable, and could have been avoided with greater cooperation among politicians and more resources dedicated to the launching the program. However the latest roadblock was not expected and could end up disrupting the medical marijuana program if and when it finally gets rolling.

A public records request revealed that only 172 Maryland doctors have signed up to potentially prescribe medical marijuana, which translates to about 1 percent of the 16,000 docs practicing medicine in the state. State officials are concerned that the lack of prescribing doctors could cause a serious bottleneck in the process of getting medical pot to the patient. We will certainly have enough growers, distributors and buyers, but the chain is not complete without the doctors writing the scripts. Potential patients could be forced to wait weeks or even months to see a doctor, and the huge numbers game could cause these doctors to fly through screenings at a pace similar to the pill mills that lawmakers and medical boards are trying to eliminate. Officials at MedChi fear that the end result will be the medical marijuana program becoming a façade for recreational use, as doctors with long lines of patients will be ill prepared to distinguish those with a medical need from those who simply want to enjoy high quality pot.

Once the program gets going there will likely be more doctors jumping on board. The free market will work itself out and doctors will eventually see the positives in running a lucrative and legitimate business that does not involve being on call at all hours of the night. An influx of new doctors who are more open to alternative types of medicine will also be more likely to stand behind the benefits of marijuana and less hesitant to prescribe it. A lack of doctors is not likely to be the downfall of the state’s already troubled medical marijuana program, as legalization will eventually be the kill shot for medical pot. Patients who benefit from ingesting cannabis may have to jump through hoops and wait in long lines for a year or two in order to legally obtain relief, but the day is coming when a trip to the dispensary and a valid ID is all it will take for access to all forms of cannabis. The federal government may be slow to change its designation of marijuana as a schedule 1 controlled substance, but the new administration will let the states decide their own pot policies. The people have spoken in influential states such as California and Massachusetts and it’s only a matter of time before the issue goes to a vote in Maryland.

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packs-163497_1280Despite years of scrutiny and two legislative task force inquiries the Maryland cash bail system has remained untouched. Thousands of defendants sit in jails statewide for months on end awaiting trial simply because they cannot afford to post bail. Many end up being released after their cases are dismissed, and others remain until accepting a guilty plea to time served or probation. In some cases the bails set by court commissioners or judges are exorbitantly high and in other cases the defendants simply cannot scrape together any amount of cash or collateral for a bail bondsman. The bail bond industry has been raking in profits for decades by preying off the desperate desire of defendants to get out of jail, and the industry’s hefty contributions to lawmakers have largely shielded it from reproach. But within the last month two influential members of the state’s legal community have spoken out against the current cash bail system, and their words have already translated to real change in the district and circuit criminal courts.

In mid October the newly elected Attorney General sent a memo to five state lawmakers declaring that judges and court commissioners must consider the defendant’s finances when determining an appropriate bail. The memo goes on to say that if bail is too high for the defendant the Court of Appeals in Annapolis would likely find it unlawful, and further states that an amount too high for the defendant to post would be excessive and a violation of Eighth Amendment of the United States Constitution. While the Attorney General’s memo was advisory and did not establish any type of rule of law, the Chief Judge of the District Court of Maryland took notice and sent a memo of his own. This memo instructs other District Court judges to treat monetary bail as a means to insure the defendant’s return to court, and not as a means to assure the public safety. Defense attorneys have been making this argument for years to court commissioners and judges across the state with little success. Too often our state judges use high bail amounts as a means to keep a defendant in custody pending his or her trial. These excessive bails are punitive and unconstitutional, but have become status quo in Maryland courts.

Excessive bails are set by judges and court commissioners all over the state, but this epidemic is particularly out of control in Baltimore City and to a lesser extent Baltimore County. Defendants arrested on drug charges such as possession with intent to distribute are often held on six-figure bail amounts, and end up paying thousands to bail bondsmen who lure customers with 1% down payment plans. It is not only drug charges that result in outrageous bail amounts, but also gun charges and alleged violent offenses where there is little objective evidence of guilt. The roots of the problem are the judges and commissioners that have been approaching bail hearings entirely wrong for years; they read the charges and set a bail amount solely on the alleged facts in the statement of probable cause. It becomes lost that defendants are to be presumed innocent at every step of the judicial process, including at a bail hearing.  But this finally appears to be changing as the Chief Judge’s memorandum is starting to show its influence in court. Defendants that do not pose a threat to the community and are not a legitimate flight risk are being released on their own recognizance. This falls in line with the least onerous means to assure the return of the defendant to court. Some defendants who are determined to be serious dangers to the community are being held in custody, but the judges are now putting their findings on the record, as instructed by the Chief Judge.

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network-197300_1280New details are slowly emerging in the theft prosecution of a former NSA contractor who is accused of stealing classified government information over a 20-year period. Federal law enforcement officers executed a search and seizure warrant of the man’s Glen Burnie house in August and found boxes of stolen papers and multiple computers containing as much as 50 terabytes of classified information. Although law enforcement appears to have a grasp on the quantity of information stolen, there are still many unanswered questions such as whether any of the information was disseminated to third parties. The one certainty though is that the former contractor with top-secret clearance will be held in jail until trial after a federal judge denied his request for bail.

On the issue of bail, defense attorneys argued that their client is not a flight risk because he does not own a passport and does not have the means or the desire to live in hiding. They added that 51-year old Ann Arundel County man has served in the U.S. Navy and is not a danger to the community or the country, citing the fact that there is no proof he intended to share any of the stolen government materials. The government countered with what turned out to be the more compelling argument to the judge; federal prosecutors argued that the stolen information could be highly sought after by foreign governments who hypothetically could be willing to offer asylum to the defendant. They stated that the defendant allegedly used sophisticated computer technology in order to defeat controls placed on classified information and he was able to use complex software that allows for anonymous and untraceable internet access. The government also argued that the defendant is a danger to the community after law enforcement found ten firearms during the search, including one in the floorboard of a retired police vehicle that he purchased over the summer.

The NSA is one of the largest employers in Maryland, and hundreds of people that work at the Fort Meade headquarters are not actually NSA agents. Outside contractors are essential for to the day-to-day operations of the agency, and most are privy to classified information provided they have a security clearance. This particular contractor happened to have the highest clearance, and allegedly the skill and desire to pull of one of the largest data heists in government history. All told the amount of material is estimated to be as much as 500 million pages, and allegedly includes the identities of American intelligence officers and a specific operational plan against a known enemy of the U.S. The defendant now faces misdemeanor charges for unauthorized removal and retention of classified material and felony theft of government property. The felony counts carry up to ten years in prison, and the government could add more serious counts if the ongoing investigation reveals any intent to pass along the classified materials to a third party or leak the information to the public. The Glen Burnie man is already a suspect in a late summer data leak, where details about secret NSA hacking tools showed up on the internet. The Blog will continue to follow the progress of this theft prosecution and may post a follow up article if necessary.

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pills_moneyPolice arresting two drug dealers is hardly worthy of a local news headline these days in Maryland. Crime statistics are dropping in many of the urban and suburban areas statewide, as the number of property and violent crimes are as low as they have been since the 1960’s when the state population was nearly half of what it is today. But drug crimes are not following the same trend, and these offenses are dominating the arrest statistics at most police departments. Controlled dangerous substance arrests occur so frequently that even local media outlets pass on reporting a bust unless the shear size makes it newsworthy, or if a celebrity, public official or law enforcement officer ends up being the arrestee. Occasionally though the facts are so bizarre or alarming that the media outlets pounce on a new drug case, and a recent bust out of Pasadena fits that bill.

Last week Anne Arundel County police officers arrested two alleged drug dealers that were suspected to have been selling their product from a residence that doubled as a daycare center. The female defendant owned the home and the center, which had its business license suspended in February and was operating illegally. But now the former child-care entrepreneur has a lot more to worry about than a citation for operating an unlicensed business. Law enforcement began investigating the daycare center after a tipster reported suspicious activity at the house, although two neighbors interviewed by the media stated they never observed anything out of the ordinary. Regardless police began gathering evidence for a search warrant, and eventually pieced together sufficient probable cause to gain a judges signature. Law enforcement executed the search warrant at 5:30 in the morning in order to avoid having any children present during the raid. Search warrants typically must be executed during daylight hours save for exigent circumstances, which this case certainly had.

It appears as if the raid yielded successful results, as both male and the female property owners were arrested on numerous drug offenses including felony possession with intent to distribute narcotics. The pair was also charged with reckless endangerment for keeping drugs in close proximity to children, and with simple possession not marijuana. In addition, the male defendant was charged with destruction of evidence under criminal law 9-307 for attempting to flush crack cocaine down the toilet during the raid. This is a misdemeanor with a three-year maximum jail sentence and in addition to destruction of evidence also covers fabricating and altering evidence of a crime. The two alleged daycare drug dealers have preliminary hearings set in the Annapolis District Court next month, but these cases will likely be indicted by a grand jury and sent directly to the Circuit Court for Anne Arundel County. We would expect the State’s Attorney to treat these cases with particular scorn for obvious reasons, so it would not be surprising to see both defendants serve jail sentences. The male defendant faces considerably more time due to his prior criminal record, and the fact that he could be charged as a subsequent offender due to a prior conviction for possession with intent to deliver, where he was sentenced to two years in prison.

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marijuana-1281540_1280Just shy of ten years ago the Maryland legislature voted to legalize statewide casino gambling. The governor signed the gambling bill into law shortly thereafter, and three years later the first casino opened its doors for business in Cecil County. The five operational casinos in Maryland have generated over a billion dollars in revenue since 2010, and come December this number will increase dramatically with the opening of the massive MGM National Harbor Casino in Prince George’s County. Most would consider the casino program a success as thousands of jobs have been created to go along with the millions in tax revenue. While it took decades to pass legalized gambling, the process of turning a signed bill into an open casino progressed relatively smoothly, and was night and day compared to the state medical marijuana program’s progression from bill to pot shop.

The Blog has been extremely critical of the state medical marijuana commission moving at a snail’s pace to award licenses to grow and sell medical pot, but some of the blame should also fall on lawmakers. In 2007 when gambling became legal the legislature added four full-time members to the Maryland Lottery Commission to oversee the process of awarding casino licenses. The members were given a 2.3 million dollar budget, and were able to use this money to hire industry experts to help hammer out the licensing process. In contrast, the medical marijuana commission consisted of volunteer members and a $125,000 yearly budget. The committee members were not experts, and had no firsthand knowledge of how to create a medical marijuana program. There were doctors, lawyers and police officers but nobody even resembling a marijuana producer or distributor. Their paltry budget made it nearly impossible to hire experts from the private sector or from other states with existing programs, and the result is a medical pot program that has taken longer to get off the ground than the 25 other programs in the country.

The failure of lawmakers to appropriately equip the current commission stems from their creation of the bust that was the 2013 medical marijuana law. Lawmakers created the commission to oversee the original 2013 medical pot law, which only permitted the program to function through public and private academic institutions. The 2013 law focused on studying the effects of medical marijuana through the legal treatment of patients with cannabis, and relied on universities risking loss of their federal funding to research a theory that has already been proven (medical marijuana works). There were predictably no takers and a year later lawmakers created a legitimate program that would be run by private businesses, thus shifting the focus of the program from research to profit. The problem was that existing medical marijuana commission did not receive the complete overhaul it needed to account for this 180-degree change. Regulating numerous businesses that stand to make millions is an entire different animal than regulating a few universities that aren’t in it for the money.

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usa-1663297_1280Just three years ago United States Attorney’s Office for the District of Maryland made national headlines after announcing dozens of indictments for corruption and drug trafficking at the Baltimore City Jail. These indictments were the first major accomplishment of the Maryland Prison Task Force, a collaboration of law enforcement created in 2011 that includes the FBI, DPSCS, U.S. Marshal ‘s Service and the U.S. Attorney’s Office. The Task Force has remained active throughout Maryland’s jails, and recently made headlines for completing another massive corruption investigation, this time at the biggest prison facility in the state. The Eastern Correctional Institute or ECI is located in Somerset County on the Eastern shore, and houses over 3,000 inmates that have already been sentenced in court. It consists of two identical compounds with multiple housing units supervised by hundreds of correctional officers, and serviced by dozens of civilian contractors. With all the people moving in and around the facility it comes as no surprise that there would be contraband changing hands as well. It’s the scale of the conspiracy to move illegal goods such as drugs and cellphones within the facility that was far greater than expected.

The Department of Justice announced that a federal grand jury came back with indictments on 80 different individuals for their role in a massive conspiracy to move contraband throughout ECI for profit. The indictments charged 18 correctional officers, 35 inmates and 27 so called outside facilitators for their part in the conspiracy, which focused around bribing the prison officers to bring drugs, tobacco and phones to inmates. The officers allegedly would bring in packages containing contraband through prison security, and then deliver the cocaine, MDMA, marijuana, suboxone or other items to inmates who would pay using PayPal. Officers were paid as much as $500 each time they brought a package inside, and completed delivery in locations such as dining rooms, inmate’s cells or offices within the housing units.

Each defendant faces up to 20 years in federal prison for racketeering, a common charge used by the feds to severely punish those who take part in a large scale criminal conspiracy. The defendants also face felony drug distribution and possession with intent to distribute charges, which carries a 20-year sentence aw well. As of now, two of the corrections officers face additional time for the crime of depravation of rights under color of law for their role in facilitating the stabbing of two individuals who disrupted the flow of contraband. This charge exemplifies the type of public corruption that the DOJ and the FBI continue to focus on, and it gives their headlines a lot more teeth than just announcing a drug conspiracy. But really what this case boils down to is a massive law enforcement effort carried out by multiple agencies to stop inmates from getting high. This bust exposed nowhere near the level of criminal conduct of the bust at the Baltimore County Jail, as few jail conspiracies could ever rival that amount of corruption. Since the state created, and is paying for, a prison task force they will have to justify their existence and we should continue to see glorified jailhouse drug busts filed under the public corruption headline.

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toy-768921_1280Maryland has some of the toughest firearm laws in the country, with harsh penalties for illegal possession and all out bans on many popular gun models. But the focus is not confined to working and operable firearms any longer, as legislation to ban toy and replica guns in now in the works in at least two jurisdictions within the state. The proposed bans did not come out of the blue, but rather were prompted by an incident in Baltimore City where a 13-year old boy brandishing a replica pistol was shot by a police officer that feared the replica was the real thing. Luckily the boy survived, but the two bullet wounds he sustained could have easily ended his life prematurely. While this potential disaster generated a good deal of press, there are likely hundreds of incidents each year where cops are placed in the dangerous position of encountering citizens with replica guns. Rather than hope their officers make the right split decision, Baltimore City and Salisbury want to take measures to assure their officers are no longer placed in this perilous position in the first place.

The Baltimore City Counsel recently introduced a bill that would ban ownership and possession of replica guns within city limits. The bill is specifically focused on replicas with largely similar characteristics of their real counterparts, which does not include toys such as water pistols and Nerf type guns. Rather it will focus on BB and pellet guns, as well as replicas that are the same size, shape and color as common handguns and rifles. The proposed law is not designed to throw kids in jail for carrying around plastic pistols, as city officials have suggested minor penalties for first and even second time offenders. Violators would face a civil citation and seizure of the replica weapon for a first or second offense, while criminal penalties could come into play upon a third offense. As it stands now a third time offender faces arrest, and then a maximum penalty of 30 days in jail and a $1,000 fine. Since this would be a city code violation the city attorney could be the office that ends up handling the prosecutions of these cases, though it is a little premature to speculate on this.

Officials in the city of Salisbury have also stated their desire to institute a ban on replica guns, which would likely be similar to the law in Baltimore. Salisbury legislators plan to hammer out the details of the proposed bill in the coming weeks. The Blog will update the progress of these potential city laws, and will post a follow up article if necessary. We will also monitor the 2017 Maryland legislative session to see if state lawmakers put replicas on their agenda.