Each year hundreds of innocent people are terrorized by law enforcement's overuse of their SWAT teams to effectuate searches and arrest warrants. These potentially traumatizing incidents are rarely publicized unless things truly go array. The public never hears about a SWAT team arresting the wrong person, or destroying a bystander's property in a search, but those who experience this first hand will never forget. There is little or no legal recourse for those who have been unjustly damaged by a SWAT raid, as cops are typically immune if they are acting on a properly executed warrant. Even if the warrant turns out to be unlawful, the mere fact the cops acted on the reasonable belief that it was valid is enough to avoid liability. When law enforcement's actions are so egregious as to warrant civil or criminal liability justice is often hard to achieve, as it usually comes down to a cop's word against the claimant's. And there are few lawyers willing to take on a case against the government with those odds.
One of the major flaws of last year's marijuana decriminalization bill was that it failed address drug paraphernalia. For the past six months possessing less than 10 grams of pot in Maryland has been punishable only by a civil citation. These citations are not available for public inspection and are not entered into an online database. On the other hand possessing marijuana paraphernalia remains a crime punishable by a $500 fine for a first offense, and up to two years in jail for any subsequent conviction. These paraphernalia citations carry the risk of a permanent conviction, are available for public inspection, and are listed on the judiciary case search. The dichotomy between these two laws is alarming, especially considering the broad definition of drug paraphernalia. Section 5-619 of the controlled dangerous substance statute basically gives police officers full discretion to determine what should be considered paraphernalia, and there are few legitimate legal defenses to challenge the this determination. Basically any object that is used in conjunction with the marijuana can be considered paraphernalia. This includes not only pipes and rolling papers, but also plastic baggies and containers.
Almost 30 years ago the federal government took its war on drugs to new heights by proclaiming a zero tolerance policy. All drug crimes from trafficking to possession were to fall under this new initiative, and billions of dollars were spent on incarcerating offenders. Along with the fancy tag names and plentiful resources came new legislation that kept even non-violent, first time drug offenders in jail for years. Minimum mandatory prison sentences were established, and became a major source of power for the justice department, and subsequently for federal and state prosecutors. A minimum mandatory sentence requires a judge to hand down a specific prison sentence upon a finding of guilt, either by a plea or a guilty verdict at trial. Many of these sentences exclude a defendant from parole eligibility and even gain time for good behavior. While the stated goal of these sentences was to deter drug crimes, all they really did was cause severe overcrowding of prisons across the country. Not to mention creating an environment where non-violent drug offenders were serving more time than armed robbers.
The road to marijuana legalization did not come easy for Colorado and Washington State. Both endured negative publicity from the national media and propaganda campaigns from various lobbyist groups (alcohol being a major one). And even in the face of increased tax revenues and dropping crime rates, and lower teenage usage rates, these states continue to deal with uncertainly regarding federal drug laws. The current administration and justice department still have not taken a truly definitive stance on state marijuana laws going forward, which creates an unsettling environment where state and federal laws are completely contradictory. But in spite of theses challenges, two new jurisdictions have recently entered the legal marijuana fray. A week ago pot officially became legal in Alaska, and last Thursday Washington D.C. took the plunge as well. Legalized marijuana in Alaska will probably take a similar path to that of Colorado and Washington State, albeit few years behind. There are no immediate plans for dispensaries to open in the 49th state, so you won't be able to legally buy or sell pot there at least a year. On the other hand, D.C.'s new marijuana law is not like Colorado and Washington's, and the city now faces unique challenges that could make last Thursday's celebration short lived.
It almost seems like a crime in and of itself. A police officer arrests a person for suspicion of committing a drug offense. Then a few hours (hopefully not longer) later upon being released he or she finds out that the police have kept some of their property. Property that is entirely legal on its own. Typically it's something small like a few bucks or a cell phone. But in some cases it could be thousands of dollars, a car, boat, or even a house. Time and time again the courts have upheld law enforcement's right to confiscate a suspect's property. It is widely understood, if not accepted, that a cop can take a person's otherwise legal property if that officer believes it will be evidence in a criminal prosecution. Unfortunately this is hardly the only justification an officer needs to take a citizen's stuff. For decades the law of civil forfeiture has driven defendant's, their families, and criminal defense lawyers crazy. In a nutshell forfeiture gives police the right to confiscate property they believe is being used to further criminal activity. The definition is vague and general, and the standard of proof is low. Forfeiture is easily abused by law enforcement, and when it is, legally thievery is the result.
The Maryland Firearms Safety Act survived one challenge to its constitutionality back in the summer, and now the controversial law faces yet another hurdle next month. The act, which went into effect back in October, garnered national attention for being one of the strictest of its kind. Several types of handguns, assault rifles, and high capacity magazines received an all out ban, and increased security restrictions were placed on gun purchasers. Second Amendment lobbyist groups immediately admonished the gun law, and backed a lawsuit against its constitutionality in federal court. The plaintiffs argued that the Act infringed upon the rights guaranteed by the Second and Fourteenth Amendments, and was therefore unconstitutional. But a federal district court judge in Baltimore disagreed and ruled that the act, while restrictive, was crafted in a way as to not be overly burdensome. Soon after word came down from the district court the gun rights advocates filed an appeal in the Fourth Circuit Court in Richmond. Now after couple months of downtime it appears we are a little bit closer to learning the final fate of the gun law.
A school offering a marijuana business class will hardly make headlines in a few years when pot is legalized for recreational use. Considering the market potential for legal marijuana, as much as 10 billion dollars per year by some estimates, it would be a disservice for an academic institution to not offer this type of class in the future. But we're not quite there yet, and therefore it still comes as a surprise to see a class titled "Entrepreneurial Opportunities in Emerging Markets: Marijuana Legalization" to show up in a course catalog at a local public college. The school is Anne Arundel Community College, and the three-credit class is already in the second week of meeting. It's a small class, limited to 25 students, but enrollment is full, and you can expect few empty seats when the class meets each Monday and Wednesday afternoon of the spring term. A glance at the course summary reveals topics such as the tax impact and the legal and regulatory challenges facing the industry. But as a business course, the main focus is simply how to get a piece of the 10 billion dollar marijuana pie.
The 2015 legislative session is officially underway, which means our focus will shift slightly from reporting Blog worthy criminal incidents to updating readers with the progress of new potential criminal laws. Last year was quite eventful from a criminal law standpoint; simple possession of marijuana was transformed from an offense punishable by 90 days in jail to a civil infraction punishable by a fine of a hundred bucks, and the medical marijuana program was given legs after a year in the doldrums. While medical marijuana is still a year or so away from being operational, the decriminalization law has already impacted hundreds of would be defendants, cops, state's attorneys, and of course criminal defense lawyers. It is difficult to imagine that this year's session will produce the same type of splash, but advocates of legalized recreational marijuana would certainly beg to differ.
Armed robberies typically last a matter of seconds, and the majority end without anyone suffering physical injury. But the psychological stress on victims and other witnesses of this violent crime can have devastating and lasting effects. These effects are well documented, often times resulting in posttraumatic stress disorder, and other life altering ailments for the victims and witnesses. For obvious reasons we never care to dissect the psychological impacts of a robbery on the actual perpetrator. It is simply impossible to for most people to sympathize with someone who has just terrorized the innocent. But a recent incident in Harford County provided some insight on just how stressful it can be on the body to commit this violent crime.
Years of rigid officer schedules and mandatory five-day workweeks have hindered the Baltimore City Police Department's ability to fight crime in the most effective way possible. But starting this past week the department has implemented a dramatically modified system to determine when and where its officers will patrol the streets. The major changes include the adoption of a four-day workweek with 10-hour days, and the abolishment of a provision that once required the same number of cops to be on duty during all shifts throughout the week, regardless of demand for their services. The city and the police union struck a deal with these two modifications plus a 13 percent raise for all officers, which the city declares it will offset by eliminating over 200 vacant positions. Officials are confident that their new system will cut costs and reduce crime; a claim they say is backed by data from a test run of the new system just last year.
Over the last few decades mail became one of the preferred methods of transporting marijuana across state lines. The carrier was irrelevant, as dealers and smokers would typically use FedEx, UPS, and the postal service to transport their stash across the country. Law enforcement eventually caught on, and began targeting packages at sorting facilities of all the major mail carriers. The targeted packages usually met a certain criteria; they were often from states such as California, Oregon, and Colorado, where marijuana was plentiful and relatively cheap. The packages also fit size and weight criteria, and had common markings and similar types of intended addresses. Upon identifying suspicious packages, law enforcement would order a K9 sniff. If law enforcement officers confirmed their suspicions, they would react in a variety of different ways depending on the agency, suspect, and the amount of pot at issue.
Baltimore still has a long way to go, but it appears the city is heading in the right direction when it comes to fighting crime. City officials including the mayor and police commissioner recently kicked off 2015 with a press conference announcing a decline in Baltimore's overall crime rate. The decline from 2013 to 2014 includes both violent offenses and property crimes such as murder, robbery, and burglary. The number of murders and non-fatal shootings both decreased roughly ten percent. There were 235 murders and 402 shootings in 2013, while there were 211 and 371 respectively this past year. The murder total is the second lowest in decades, with only 2011 seeing a lower number in recent history with 196. The 80's and 90's consistently saw homicide numbers in the 300's, while the beginning of this century mostly saw numbers in the high 200's.
Environmental crimes are rarely the most newsworthy criminal justice stories, but when they do surface most people are surprised by their severity. Illegal dumping is probably the most common environmental crime, and it is normal to see defendants fined or even jailed in these cases. They rarely make the news though, unless the facts are so egregious as to put people in direct danger. Most cases consist of dumping construction debris in the woods or the water in order to avoid paying proper disposal costs. Not the most glamorous stories for the media, unlike cases involving large scale illegal hunting or fishing operations, which have proven to be more attractive to media outlets. Maybe it's for the shock value that accompanies a headline where jail time and fishing are in the same sentence, or maybe because it's just plain old interesting. Whatever the reason, the media recently picked up on one of these cases involving a striped bass harvest and sale operation. According to reports, a Maryland fisherman was recently sentenced to prison in a Chesapeake Bay fishing scandal, which occurred in a sparsely populated area of Talbot County. The sentence includes a year in federal prison, followed by home detention, probation, and hefty fines.
Marijuana infused foods, also known simply as edibles, are becoming increasingly popular for pot users of all ages. These products have been in existence for decades, but for the most part were only available in concert parking lots or as a rare party favor. Edibles were never considered a mainstream way to ingest marijuana, but this changed with the dramatic rise of medical marijuana and new patients it attracted. With the opening of state regulated medical marijuana dispensaries came an increased demand for edibles. Medical marijuana patients with an aversion or even a physical inability to smoke needed a way to ingest the beneficial drug without subjecting themselves to the unwanted smoke. The answer was edibles, and now the demand has created an entire industry for edible marijuana.
Governor Elect Hogan is not scheduled to begin his term as Maryland's top politician for another 6 weeks, but he has already publicized a few of his plans for gun control and drug abuse. The infamous Maryland firearms safety act appears to be safe for the foreseeable future, as Hogan's camp is on record stating they would not take action to try to repeal the law. On the other hand, the act still faces scrutiny from the federal court system. The hardline gun law was upheld in the United States District Court in Baltimore over the summer, but is now before the 4th Circuit Court of Appeals in Richmond, Virginia. The federal appellate judges will examine whether the firearms safety act infringes on the Second Amendment right to bear arms, and will consider the briefs of twenty-one different states, including Florida and Michigan, who have filed briefs urging the court to overturn the law. The Governor Elect has not publicized a detailed opinion of the firearms safety act, and will likely wait until he has taken office to do so. But Hogan has been clear thus far that his office will not challenge the incoming attorney general or the predominantly democratic legislature to repeal the law.