The shamed Baltimore City public school teacher charged with eleven theft crimes almost a year ago has now pled guilty to one count of felony theft scheme. This past week in the Circuit Court in downtown Baltimore a special statewide prosecutor announced the state would only pursue one of the counts in exchange for the guilty plea. The ex-principal will now avoid what would have been a lopsided trial, as the prosecutor had ample evidence connecting the defendant to almost $50,000 of missing school activity funds. The defendant, who is currently out on bail, was not sentenced at the plea hearing. Rather, sentencing has been set for early October on the one felony count that carries a maximum jail sentence of fifteen years. There is also the possibility of hefty fines and mandatory restitution for the charge, which is classified as theft scheme with a value of $10,000 to $100,000. This offense does not carry a minimum mandatory jail sentence, unlike the embezzlement count that was dropped.
The last couple of months have been quiet on the medical marijuana front, and as a result it did not take much of a pot story to produce headlines at a variety of Maryland news outlets. Last Friday a town planner for the Talbot County seat of Easton announced that the site of a former tool manufacturing plant would receive local zoning approval to become a marijuana growing facility. The planner decided that growing legal pot classifies as agriculture, which is proper in all areas of the Eastern Shore town, save for the historical downtown area. Keep in mind that this facility would strictly be for growing, and would have no dispensing capability, or relationship to any potential local dispensary. Whether this actually turns out to be a story of substance remains to be seen, as the growing company who pitched the town planner has not yet received a state license to grow medical pot. But all the downtime created by the Maryland Medical Marijuana Commission's methodical pace has left the people and consequently the media in a jumpy mood; nearly any small development will make headlines at this point.
The FBI and the Montgomery County Police recently announced the break up of a large-scale drug ring operating out of a residential area near Rockville. Monday during the early morning hours, as many as 100 state, local and federal law enforcement officers raided numerous townhomes in the Bel Pre development, as well as a business in Prince George's County. The raids yielded a narcotics, multiple firearms, and over $70,000 in cash. All told 18 people were arrested, and now the defendants face felony drug charges in federal court. All but one of the defendants resides in Maryland, with the non-resident being from Pennsylvania. The defendants are charged with conspiracy to distribute heroin and cocaine, and could face other charges based on the evidence that was seized.
News trucks and National Guard Humvees are no longer lining the streets of Baltimore, but the city is still experiencing elevated crime levels and widespread violence following riots that generated worldwide attention. Forty-two people were murdered within city limits last month, the highest monthly total in over 40 years, and millions of dollars worth of narcotics have fallen into the hands of drug dealers in the last few weeks. The murder rate is attributed by some as a direct result of a lower police presence in high crime areas, exactly the opposite of what is needed. Police in the tensest areas such as the western district of Baltimore City have allegedly shifted their priority to self-preservation rather than protecting the public. According to an anonymous supervising officer who was interviewed on CNN, cops in the western district are basically ignoring orders from the police leadership to vigorously patrol, and are just simply responding to 911 calls. This passive approach is likely causing a sense of lawlessness in certain areas, and in turn wrongdoers are becoming bolder. Although the police commissioner has no plans to step down, there is growing discontent about the department's leadership going forward. One city councilman has publically called for a new police commissioner, stating that he knows rank and file officers have lost confidence and respect for their commander. This environment has officer moral and motivation at an all time low, and city residents are suffering the consequences.
Toward the end of the 2015 legislative session the General Assembly convincingly passed a modification of the marijuana decriminalization law. The modification served to cure an inherent defect in the 2014 decriminalization law by removing the possession of marijuana paraphernalia from the catalog of CDS criminal offenses. It was a logical and necessary fix to the ambiguous situation created by the 2014 law, which punished the possession of pot only by a civil fine, yet still punished possession of the device used to ingest the pot with criminal sanctions. This modification was expected to take effect in October of this year, thus ending the ambiguity and giving law enforcement and prosecutors more time to deal with actual issues of public safety. The only hurdle was an approval from our recently sworn governor, which at the time seemed like a forgone conclusion. But this past week Hogan flexed his socially conservative muscle and vetoed the bill, baffling some lawmakers and angering marijuana reform advocates all over the country. So for at least another year, the only thing criminal about smoking a joint Maryland is the rolling paper that keeps it together.
Drug and alcohol related deaths have increased statewide over the past few years, and the jump from 2013 to 2014 was so significant that the governor has declared a health crisis in Maryland. The state health department recently released its annual report for this past year, and the numbers are frightening to say the least. Over 1,000 people died directly from drug and alcohol overdoses last year, which represents a 21 percent increase from 2013. More than half of those deaths were the result of heroin, a narcotic whose popularity has been increasing exponentially over the past decade. In his first year of office, Governor Hogan has made it a priority to combat drug overdoses, and he has taken proactive measures such as approving a bill expanding the use of Naloxone, an opioid antagonist that reverses the effects of heroin. Many police officers statewide, including those in Anne Arundel County, now carry this powerful life saving drug. Chances are that more departments will add it to their officer's essential police equipment in the future. Ultimately though, the governor's focus will be on breaking up heroin trafficking rings, and on educating the youth about the dangers of even one single dose this dangerous drug.
The FBI recently concluded a two-year investigation of five Baltimore City public works employees, and now two face bribery charges in the United States District Court. The other three face theft and conspiracy charges, which are charged under a similar federal law. Cell phone wiretaps ultimately led to a raid in which federal authorities confiscated physical evidence to aid U.S. attorneys in proving their case against the five. One of the male defendants has been charged with conspiracy to solicit bribes concerning a program receiving federal funds and the only female defendant has been charged with the same, plus an additional count of bribery. The other three males are charged with conspiracy to steal from a program receiving federal funds and with theft.
As a criminal defense blog, we have posted numerous articles on the unfortunate incidents of police brutality and misconduct in the state of Maryland. While it seems the number of these incidents has been increasing over the past few years, it is more likely that technology is simply exposing them at a higher rate. Police misconduct is an epidemic in our country that we can no longer ignore, but regardless of our condemnation of misconduct, as defense attorneys we fight to assure that all defendants are afforded a fair trial and a competent defense. In the Gray case the officers happen to be defendants, and justice will only be achieved if they too are given a fair trial. The Baltimore City State's Attorney made the bold decision to charge the officers shortly after the medical examiner's report came back with the medical conclusion of a homicide. While some of the city prosecutor's public comments were inappropriate, her decisiveness benefited the city, the family of the victim, and for the most part did not unduly prejudice the defendants.
Back in October we posted an article discussing the prospect of the Baltimore Police equipping all of their street officers with wearable digital recording cameras. A short time after the article appeared on the Blog, the city counsel approved a bill to make these body cameras a reality. Nothing ever came of the bill, and it was not highly publicized because the mayor quickly vetoed it. The mayor's office cited budget and privacy concerns with the bill, but some have speculated she only vetoed it so her own version, which she proposed in February, would end up becoming law. The budget concerns are hardly insurmountable, even for a police department that is notorious for spending way too much money on overtime and for officers on paid suspension. The events of the past three weeks have made it as apparent as ever that the police department needs to stop making excuses and get its act together. The body camera program will protect the public and the officers themselves, and could prevent civil unrest due to citizen officer contact from ever happening again. There is simply no price too high for these assurances, especially not at $400 per body camera. And yes, we understand the camera program will require a support system that will likely cost more than the equipment, but police misconduct cannot continue to put lives in danger and perpetuate racial conflict.
The Maryland State Police have officially charged one of their own this week, as a criminal summons has just been issued for a 28 year-old trooper. The trooper is a five-year veteran of the force who just two years ago received national recognition for his role in rendering first aid to an assault victim at an Orioles game. Now it's the trooper himself who faces a second degree assault charge, coupled with another charge for misconduct while in office. Ironically the summons was issued to the state police headquarters in Baltimore County, and not the home address of the trooper, who is on paid leave. Police officers and other certain government employees have the right to keep their home address private, which is undoubtedly why the MSP issued the criminal summons to their Pikesville office.
State lawmakers have officially closed the books on the 2015 legislative session, and there will be a host of new criminal and traffic bills reaching the governor's desk in the next few weeks. Some have progressed through both chambers with little fanfare, and others have attracted media attention from the first reading onward. The decriminalization of marijuana paraphernalia was a hot topic even before lawmakers convened in January, so naturally this bill received a great deal of attention throughout the legislative process. Numerous amendments were proposed and rejected, but the final bill is concise and pointed, and only modifies two existing controlled dangerous substance laws. These are section 5-601, which deals with possession, and 5-619, which deals with paraphernalia. The drug possession law is simply modified to include a section that makes smoking marijuana in public a civil offense punishable by a $500 fine, while the paraphernalia law is modified with one small paragraph stating that criminal punishments do not apply to paraphernalia involving the use or possession of marijuana. Thus, come October pot paraphernalia will no longer be a crime in Maryland.
The Maryland criminal justice system is relatively friendly to first time offenders compared to other states. This may be a hard concept to swallow, especially for someone who has spent months fighting in the district and circuit courts to clear their name. But our state provides number of ways for a person charged with a crime to eventually be able to move forward with their life. The expungement system is easy to understand, cheap, and quick in comparison to other similar systems. Typically within three months of filing a qualified expungement application, the charge at issue will be taken off the public case search, and court and police records will be destroyed. There is also no limit on how many qualified cases a person can expunge, which is hardly the case in other states, and there are numerous outcomes that allow a defendant to expunge his or her case. Some common outcomes are a not guilty verdict, nolle pros., STET, or a probation before judgment. Probation before judgment, which allows a defendant to plead guilty without receiving a permanent conviction, is often afforded to first time offenders. A PBJ is eligible for expungement three years from the date it was accepted. A case that is marked as STET also may be expunged after waiting three years, but not guilty verdicts and cases where the state announces a nolle pros. are immediately eligible.
When the legislature decriminalized small amounts of marijuana last year the celebration drowned out many of the law's shortcomings. In last spring's rush to push decriminalization to the governor's desk, the legislature neglected to address certain collateral consequences of the new law. One of these consequences was the illogical relationship between newly decriminalized marijuana and the criminal offense of paraphernalia. This created tension and inconsistency between law enforcement and prosecutors throughout the state, and generally left defendants feeling duped and confused. A few weeks ago we posted an article about the legislature's efforts to cure this defect, and a bill modifying marijuana paraphernalia is well on its way to becoming state law. Paraphernalia may have been the most glaring and publicized omission in the decriminalization law, but it wasn't the only one.
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 awry. 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 to 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.