In the first three months of 2014 Maryland witnessed a dramatic increase in the amount of statewide drug overdose deaths. From January through March 2014 there have been 252 deaths, 148 of which were related to heroin. The total number is 33 percent higher than the first three months of last year, and remarkably is higher than the total number of traffic fatalities in the same time frame. While the majority of these deaths have occurred in areas such as Baltimore City that are quite familiar with drug overdoses, there have also been a staggering number of deaths in the suburbs. For communities in Ann Arundel, Frederick, and Harford counties drug overdoses are not commonplace, and seem to make news headlines each time they occur. The news headlines generate talk among the public, which in turn places pressure on the police and the government. Police forces around the state have already taken action, placing more emphasis on breaking up drug trafficking rings that deal with dangerous narcotics such as heroin prescription drugs. Additionally law enforcement officers are receiving thorough training on drug overdoses, and are now carrying the anti overdose medicine Narcan in their squad cars. There is no doubt that when the 2015 legislative session rolls around we will see bills specifically designed to address the increased amount of overdoses. But for now the state government has only responded in the form of an executive order from the governor's office.
While Maryland will have its day in October, possession of a small amount of marijuana has officially been decriminalized in Washington D.C. At midnight on Thursday, metropolitan police officers were ordered to keep their handcuffs in their holsters in favor of a citation booklet for all marijuana possession cases less than one ounce. And while there is still uncertainty surrounding the long-term fate of this new law, as it stands today simple possession of pot is punishable by a $25 fine, $50 less than the punishment for littering. D.C. cops have been provided with wallet sized cards for their own reminders, as well as to hand out to the public. The cards provide a general overview of the most important changes that are laid out in the Marijuana Possession Decriminalization Amendment Act of 2014. The five bullet points on the card include a line about the fine and the fact that police may confiscate the marijuana, the requirement of disclosing your name to cops upon being cited (and being subject to arrest if you refuse), the fact that smoking in public and possessing more than an ounce is still a crime, a reminder that driving under the influence of drugs is a crime, and that federal officers may still arrest anyone in the District for possession under federal law.
Maryland lawmakers made significant progress in reforming state marijuana laws in the recent legislative session. Starting in October of this year possession of less than 10 grams of pot will no longer be a criminal offense. And the medical marijuana commission is currently planning, albeit slowly, a fully functioning and accessible state sanctioned medical marijuana program. But many in favor of reform, which is well over half the population, are not completely satisfied with the work of our state government. This includes local governments and city and county police departments who have expressed concerns over flaws in the decriminalization law. In a couple months possessing small amounts of marijuana will be a civil infraction just like a speeding ticket. But the law remains unchanged when it comes to marijuana paraphernalia. Cops won't be able to arrest a person for possessing pot, but that pipe, rolling paper, and even the plastic baggie that holds it can trigger a criminal charge. This means that unless something changes smoking marijuana will remain a crime, as anything used to smoke could be considered paraphernalia.
Starling news came out of Towson two weeks ago when a 20-year old police cadet was arrested for multiple drug and theft crimes. The story became even more compelling when the public learned the alleged crime was committed at Baltimore County Police headquarters. The cadet now stands accused of stealing thousands of dollars of seized cash and narcotics, which were being held in the department's evidence locker. Among the cadet's ten charges are theft between $10,000 and $100,000 and possession with intent to distribute narcotics, both of which are felonies. The cadet's case is tentatively set for a hearing in district court later this month, but the case will almost certainly be brought before a grand jury in circuit court sometime in the next couple of weeks, and an indictment is sure to follow. It is not entirely clear how a cadet with little experience gained access to the secure evidence locker without any supervision. There is apparently full video surveillance of the locker and regular audits of its contents, but whatever the department's security measures were, they were no enough to deter or stop the cadet from completing the theft. The impact of this embarrassing incident stretches far beyond the accused and the police department, as potentially dozens of unrelated criminal cases in the county may be affected as well.
In March of this year the Washington D.C. council passed a bill decriminalizing marijuana, and the mayor immediately signed it into law. City residents had been fighting for marijuana reform for years, although with little to show for their efforts.
Medical marijuana was initiated in D.C. in 2010, but recreational use still fell under the harsh federal controlled substances act, which made possession of any amount of pot punishable by up to a year and jail and a $1,000 fine. Finally though the council and the mayor answered the call of two thirds of the city's population and made simple possession a civil infraction with a maximum fine of $25. But the city government and the vast majority of D.C. residents may have been given a bit of false hope, as decriminalization currently sits in a perilous position. The law must pass through a period of congressional review before it can go into effect, and although that period is ending soon, one motivated Maryland politician has taken steps to block the law from taking effect.
Another chapter has recently been closed in a highly controversial Owings Mills law enforcement shooting. This past week, the Baltimore County State's Attorney's Office announced that charges will not be filed against any of the multiple FBI agents who shot and killed a suspect who was under investigation for drug trafficking. Public details of the shooting have been sparse, but we do know that the deceased was a 34 year-old man with a lengthy criminal history in Baltimore City, and alleged gang ties. The man had been under surveillance by local police and the FBI, but on the day in question back in April, something went terribly wrong. Various reports say that law enforcement surrounded the man when he was in his car, and ordered him out of the vehicle with weapons drawn. Officers identified themselves as police, and were all wearing visible law enforcement gear, but their efforts to peacefully detain their suspect were unsuccessful, as the man allegedly put his car into reverse and attempted to drive through a makeshift police blockade. At some point the man's car struck another vehicle, and it was at this moment when the FBI agents opened fire on the deceased, discharging a total of nineteen rounds. Six of the shots struck the man, and he died on the scene.
Theft is an example of an offense that is typically referred to as a crime of opportunity. This means that most thefts are committed without premeditation, and only after a person encounters situation where he or she sees possible success in stealing something of value. The Hollywood heist movies about the priceless art thief or the armored truck robbers are not all fiction, but they definitely are not representative of the majority of theft crimes. As a crime of opportunity, theft really sees no boundaries. There are a surprising number of thefts committed at churches, schools, and even hospitals, and literally any object you could think of has been wrongfully taken. We're not just talking about jewelry, cash, and iPhones, but also things like steel bleachers, telephone poles, and even trash cans. And now one thing can be added to the list, as there have been a rash of used clothing thefts reported at Baltimore area donation and recycling bins.
Two years ago Maryland became one of 22 states to legalize marijuana for medical purposes, and just months ago lawmakers modified to the program to make it functional. Many of the other states already have fully functioning medical marijuana programs, with numerous privately owned dispensaries, but Maryland's program is still in the planning stages. As of now it looks like it could be up to 18 months until the first private dispensaries open their doors locally, and when they do, there is now hope that the federal government will stay out of the way. Anyone doing business in the medical or recreational marijuana industry faces the constant threat of the feds (read the DEA) busting down their doors and closing up their shops. This threat is not particularly imminent as the Department of Justice and the POTUS himself have called off the dogs as of late, but make no mistake about it, the threat still remains. But a recent vote in the U.S. House of Delegates may be the first step toward a permanent resolution in the state versus federal marijuana law conflict.
While Baltimore City holds the dubious honor of being the heroin capital of the state, it is not the only city in Maryland struggling with this highly addictive and increasingly popular drug. The Blog posted and article more than a year ago about the dramatic increase in heroin use in suburbs, and the trend has continued in 2014. Anne Arundel County is one area that has been hit especially hard so far this year. County Police have reported 172 heroin overdoses since January 1st, with 22 of these being fatal. 28 of these overdoses occurred within the city limits of Annapolis, with 5 being reported on one day in April. City and county police are aware of the problem, and have taken affirmative steps to wage war on the drug. County police officers now carry the anti-overdose drug, Narcan, in order to prevent heroin overdoses from becoming fatal, and Annapolis officers will soon follow suit. But law enforcement's broader goal is not simply to prevent deadly heroin overdoses; it is to eradicate the drug entirely.
Drunk driving has become the most hotly debated and visible crime in the entire country. The amount of media attention and lobbyist money that is directed toward DUI education and prevention simply has no comparison. Sure, the war on drugs is trudging along, and sucking up millions of taxpayer dollars, but it targets dozens of substances, and not one single offense. Drunk driving stands alone for a variety of reasons including the fact that it is so common, and its defendants do not fall within a specific age or socioeconomic group. Teenagers, professionals, celebrities, cops, politicians etc. can be the defendants, and unfortunately the victims of this offense. All the media and lobbyist attention does not go unnoticed by lawmakers and state agencies, and as a result there are pages of laws and regulations governing DUI policy. The courts are charged with the task of interpreting each of these regulations, and this past week Maryland's highest court released a lengthy opinion after being called upon to do just that.
The Baltimore City Council recently voted 11-2 to impose a strict nightly curfew on children and young teens throughout the city limits. The mayor has already said she will approve the new bill, and it could end up becoming law by the middle of this summer. Bills signed by the mayor typically become law 30 days thereafter. The city currently has a curfew in place, which prohibits anyone under the age of 17 to be out on the streets past 11 at night on weekdays and midnight on weekends. But the proposed curfew is considerably more restrictive, and specifically targets various age groups. Upon becoming law, children and teens under the age of 14 will be required to be off the streets and indoors by 9 p.m. each day of the year. Teenagers between the ages of 14 and 16 will be permitted to stay out until 10 p.m. on school nights, and until 11 p.m. on all other nights. The new city legislation also increases the penalty for the parents of children that are found to be in violation. Where the old penalty carried a fine of up to $300, the new law will authorize a fine of up to $500. There is a provision that allows the fine to be waived if the parent attends counseling sessions with their child.
Each year as the summer months approach the Maryland State Police tries to send a clear message that DUI enforcement will be a top priority. This year the MSP sent that message by way of a DUI saturation patrol during a targeted Cinco De Mayo enforcement. Numerous state police installations as well as the State Police Impaired Driving Effort or SPIDRE were out in full force this past Monday to specifically look for impaired and unsafe drivers. When the dust settled on the morning of May 6th, troopers had tallied 81 drunk driving arrests, which is nearly eight times more arrests than on normal weekday. Troopers also issued over 700 citations and over 1,000 speed violation warnings. And yes, we are surprised as well that the state troopers issued more warnings than tickets. The MSP issued a press release the following day, but it did not seem to pick up a ton of media attention, as only one outlet that we could find published the story. Nonetheless, this is definitely a sign of more targeted enforcements and press releases to come. And with the Memorial Day holiday just weeks away you can bet that another DUI saturation patrol is on the horizon.
A popular argument against the legalization of marijuana is that our roads will become packed with stoned drivers, and thus become more dangerous. While this argument lacks any sort of baseline data, it has appealed to those who are set on condemning medical and recreational pot use at all costs. It did not prove persuasive though in Maryland's 2014 legislative session, as medical marijuana easily passed. The revised medical program will become law in October, and could be fully functioning within 18 months. But legalization for recreational use will undoubtedly be the hot topic in our state's next few legislative sessions (until it becomes law, possibly within the next 3-5 years), and the marijuana DWI argument is sure to surface. Maryland already incorporates drug use in its DWI statute, but there are no specific provisions, which refer to marijuana testing and legal limits. We can look to other states to answer some of the questions about how the legislature, police officers, and prosecutors will handle this issue.
The 2014 legislative session has come to an end, and with it went the daily criminal law related news stories coming out of Annapolis. We enjoyed keeping our readers up to date on the dynamic marijuana policy proposals, and will continue to follow the progress of our new laws. But the Blog must now move on without the legislature in session, and for our first post we will turn our attention to the relatively benign topic of ranking the safest places to live in Maryland. The idea to write about this particular topic came from an article written by a national residential real estate company, who regularly blogs just like we do. The company, Movoto, just published an article, which ranks 35 different places in the state by how safe they are. While the article does provide some insight, it must be taken with a grain of salt. So before you cancel your vacation to Ocean City this summer (OC ranked last out of the 35 in safety) it is necessary to take a closer look at these rankings.
The dramatic comeback for marijuana decriminalization in Maryland is now complete, as the Governor signed the General Assembly's bill into law earlier this week. Come October it will no longer be a crime for a person over the age of 18 to possess less than ten grams of pot. Despite the overwhelming support of state lawmakers (the bill easily passed in the house and senate) and the public, decriminalization is not without its detractors. State prosecutors are one group that has expressed criticism over the new law, and their reasons are not so obvious. You would expect state prosecutors to have a more conservative, less tolerant approach to certain behaviors, which our laws have historically deemed as crimes. On the other hand, the prosecutor's criticism of decriminalization is not simply general moral opposition, but rather concern over the implementation of this new law. A close examination of the bill certainly supports some of these concerns.