The Blog has posted multiple articles about our state's gun laws in the past few weeks as Maryland's controversial gun laws just cannot seem to stay out of the news. This week was no different, with another headline courtesy of the United States Supreme Court. The Court recently announced that it would not hear argument on the statewide firearm carry permit law, which was upheld by U.S. Court of Appeals for the 4th District this past year. The challenge to the law began when a gun owner from Baltimore had his concealed carry application denied because he could not prove to the state that he had a "good and substantial reason" for the license. This was despite the fact that the man's house had been burglarized multiple times. The gun owner filed suit in federal district court, and was joined by The Second Amendment foundation, an organization that opposes firearm restrictions. The district court judge agreed that the law was too restrictive and vague, and found it unconstitutional. But the victory was short lived for plaintiffs after the Appellate court reversed and held that the law could stand. Both parties were confident that the Supreme Court would settle the issue for good (and in their respective favor), but it wasn't to be as the Court decided the 4th Circuit would have the final say.
Recently in Court Rulings Category
More than a year ago the Maryland Court of Appeals threw out Alonzo King's rape conviction after ruling that police had illegally seized his DNA sample. Mr. King was arrested on an unrelated assault charge in 2009 and his DNA was collected under authority of a state law, which allowed cops to collect such samples from anyone arrested for a serious offense. This sample was fed into an FBI cold case database several months later and it matched an unidentified sample taken from the scene of a 2003 rape. Arrest and prosecution followed soon thereafter, and Mr. King suffered the same fate that most defendants do when trying to fight a case with inclulpatory DNA evidence, as he was found guilty and later sentenced to life in prison. Shortly after the Court of Appeals vacated King's guilty plea the United States Supreme Court agreed to hear the case on a writ of certiorari. During the past year Mr. King, and to a lesser extent state law enforcement officers, Governor O'Malley, Attorney General Gansler, and anyone with direct or indirect concerns about our civil liberties have been on edge waiting to hear from the Court, and as of this week the wait is over.
In a five to four decision the Supreme Court ruled that the Maryland DNA statute does not violate our Fourth Amendment rights, and law enforcement officials are free to sample the DNA of anyone arrested for a serious crime. The majority opined that an arrestee's expectation of privacy is not offended by the minor intrusion of a brief swab of his cheeks, and by contrast the government has a significant interest in identifying the arrestee. The government, according to majority, must be able to accurately identify the arrestee so that the proper name can be attached to his charges, and also so the criminal justice system can make a fully informed decision about the arrestee's pretrial custody status, i.e. the amount of his bail. The majority then compared DNA sampling to photographing, and the universally accepted, although never by Supreme Court opinion, practice of fingerprinting. The four dissenting Justices deferred to Justice Scalia to pen the dissent, which explained and discarded the majority's 28-page opinion in 18 pages so brilliant that it was actually easy reading. Needless to say if you don't have time to read both, start your reading after the words "it is so ordered".
About a year ago the Blog posted an article addressing the issue of whether it is legal to video record a police officer engaging in his or her duties. While there is clearly no state or federal law prohibiting this protected First Amendment behavior, the answer is not so simple. In other words, despite no specific law prohibiting the act of filming a cop, it's not legal if the police can just arrest you for disorderly conduct or some other petty offense. A year ago, the Maryland Attorney General issued an opinion advising police departments around the state that the public has the right to video record its officers. The Department of Justice, or DOJ, also filed an 11-page letter with the court in a Baltimore City civil rights lawsuit. The lawsuit was based on a 2010 incident at the Preakness where a man's phone was confiscated after he was seen recording the police make an arrest. This DOJ letter pointed out that the Baltimore Police Department's policies do not adequately protect a citizen's right to record cops. Recently, the DOJ has once again reiterated its stance on this issue by filing another letter with the United States District Court in Maryland.
A little over a year ago, Federal District Court Judge Benson Everett Legg ruled that the "good and substantial" provision of the Maryland concealed carry gun law was unconstitutional. This provision required citizens to prove to the state Handgun Permit Unit that they had a good and substantial reason before being granted a concealed carry permit. When a Baltimore County man was denied one such permit, he filed suit in federal court, and the Second Amendment Foundation, which advocates for the preservation of the right to carry, joined in the lawsuit. Despite the Attorney General's best efforts, Judge Legg concluded that the law was too broad to satisfy the state's compelling interest to protect its citizens and prevent crime. According to the Judge the good and substantial provision did not safeguard the public from every handgun related hazard, and therefore did not do enough to justify a significant limitation on the constitutional right to bear arms. But just last week, a three-judge panel sitting for the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 4th Circuit unanimously disagreed with Judge Legg, and reversed his decision.
A few months back, the blog posted an article on a controversial Maryland law that allows police to sample and store DNA from any individual arrested for a violent crime or for burglary. Despite this law still being up on appeal, for the past few months state law enforcement agencies have continued to engage in this practice under the authority of a signed order from Chief Justice Roberts. The order did not overturn a decision by the state court of appeals, which declared the DNA law unconstitutional, but rather allowed DNA sampling to continue pending a final opinion by the country's highest court. A decision on this controversial law is now expected in the coming months, as the Supreme Court recently heard arguments on the constitutionality police DNA sampling. The arguments were spirited to say the least, and at this early juncture there is no indication which way the majority appears to be leaning. But all justices are aware that this is could be a seminal opinion that could shape criminal procedure for the coming years. Justice Alito described it as the most important criminal procedure case in decades. He added that many murders and rapes could be solved using this technology, which involves a minimal intrusion on personal privacy, and asked why DNA sampling is not the fingerprinting of the 21st century. Whether these statements have tipped Alito's hand remains to be seen, but there were is certainly some skepticism from the other justices about the law's constitutionality.
Compulsory or mandatory blood tests during the course of a DUI investigation have been a hotly debated legal topic over the last decade. The debate over whether cops should legally be able to force a DUI suspect to submit to a blood draw to measure blood alcohol level has been debated in Maryland, Delaware, and in almost every state in the county. Twenty years ago it would truly have been far fetched to predict that a state could one day grant its law enforcement officers the power to force a DUI suspect to submit to a blood test without a warrant, but now this idea is becoming a reality. Many Maryland beachgoers who happen to cross over into Delaware can find out the hard way about this harsh law.
In Delaware, a police officer may require a DUI suspect to submit to a blood alcohol test if he or she refuses to take a breath alcohol test. Typically, an EMT will be called to the scene of the DUI and instructed to take the suspects blood, or the blood draw can occur in the police station. Delaware law does not require that the DUI involve an accident or a serious injury to anyone involved in the DUI. Delaware law also does not require that the arresting officer or any officer obtain a warrant before requiring a blood alcohol test. There have been countless incidents of Maryland residents being arrested for DUI in Delaware, especially in the summer months when Marylanders flock to beach towns such as Dewey and Rehoboth. Many times these Maryland residents try to invoke their right to refuse a breath or blood alcohol test, only to be informed (and many times rudely informed) that this is only a right they can exercise in Maryland.
There are not many civil law topics worthy of a post on a criminal law blog, but the revival of the contributory negligence debate is one topic that deserves an exception. The Maryland civil justice system is one of four states plus Washington D.C. that uses the contributory negligence standard in all civil lawsuits. The contributory negligence standard bars recovery for a party that contributed in any manner to the accident or injury. If a plaintiff brings a civil lawsuit he or she may not recover a dime if the defense lawyers show that the plaintiff was negligent. For example, in a pedestrian accident case if the defense lawyer that represents the driver of the vehicle that hit the pedestrian shows that the pedestrian negligently ran across the street, then the pedestrian may not legally recover any damages. Even if the plaintiff's lawyer has shown the driver who caused the accident was speeding and driving recklessly.
Most states use the comparative negligence standard, which allows the plaintiff to recover damages even if he or she was negligent in causing the accident or injury. If the jury finds that the plaintiff deserves a verdict, the jury will be instructed to subtract their award of damages based on the percentage of the plaintiff's negligence or fault. If the plaintiff proves $100,000 damages but was 10 percent negligent in causing the accident, then the jury will be instructed to award a verdict of $90,000. The contributory negligence standard does occasionally cross over to the criminal justice system, when there is evidence that the plaintiff of an injury case was under the influence of drugs such as marijuana or prescription medication, or if the plaintiff was driving and drinking alcohol, but not to the level that would rise to DUI. The comparative negligence standard in civil cases is highly favorable to the plaintiff, and Maryland trial lawyers have been fighting to change the standard for years. Maryland trial lawyers argue that the contributory negligence standard is too harsh, and unjustly bars recovery. The trial lawyers also argue that everyday citizens are denied access to the civil justice system, because trial lawyers cannot afford to take on cases that may be thrown out due to the slightest bit of contributory negligence. On the other hand, the insurance companies argue that the contributory negligence system keeps frivolous lawsuits out of the court system, and keeps Maryland insurance premiums in check.
The United States Supreme Court will temporarily allow Maryland law enforcement agencies to resume their post arrest DNA testing policies according to an order signed by chief justice John Roberts. The DNA testing policies allow all Maryland law enforcement agencies to take DNA samples of suspects arrested for violent crimes such as robbery, assault, rape, and homicide. The law also allows police to take DNA from a suspect that is arrested for burglary. Although burglary is not a violent crime, it is a crime that is often only solved when forensic evidence such as DNA or latent fingerprints is recovered from the crime scene. Maryland police agencies are not allowed to take DNA samples upon arrest of suspects that are incarcerated for common non-violent crimes such as DUI, possession of marijuana, and drug distribution.
Earlier this year, the Maryland DNA sampling law was challenged in the Maryland Court of Appeals, and the Court ruled that the DNA collection policy was unconstitutional under the 4th Amendment of the United States Constitution. The 4th Amendment protects citizens against unlawful government search and seizures, and it has been argued by the ACLU and the Public Defender's Office that taking DNA samples upon arrest is an unlawful seizure. Most states only take DNA samples from defendants after a criminal conviction, or after a judge issues a warrant specifically allowing DNA collection. The ACLU also argued that Maryland's DNA collection policy violates each citizen's right to privacy. The Maryland high court agreed with the ACLU back in April, and reversed a 2009 rape conviction. The rape defendant was arrested on an unrelated assault charge, and pursuant to the Maryland DNA testing policy; his DNA was sampled and entered into a database. The database matched the DNA taken from the assault arrest with DNA that was recovered at the scene of an unsolved Maryland rape case, and thus an arrest warrant was issued for the rape defendant.
A recent Maryland Court of Appeals decision has declared that it is an unconstitutional invasion of privacy for police officers to obtain DNA samples from arrested individuals absent a criminal conviction. It has previously been the standard practice of the Maryland State Police and other police departments around the state to obtain DNA samples from any suspect charged with burglary, and certain violent crimes such as assault, rape, homicide, and aggravated assault. Under the recent ruling, Maryland police departments must now wait until prosecuting lawyers secure a criminal conviction before they can legally obtain DNA samples from a defendant. The ruling by the Maryland Court of Appeals overturned the 2009 rape conviction of Alonzo Jay King Jr. when the court concluded that DNA samples that led to King's rape conviction were the fruits of an illegal seizure pursuant to the Fourth Amendment of the U.S. Constitution. King's DNA sample was obtained after he was arrested for an unrelated assault case. The high court ruling has had an immediate impact upon law enforcement, as the Maryland state police department, headquartered in Pikesville, Maryland, has already instructed its employees to suspend DNA sampling of arrested suspects.
Despite the recent high court decision, some Maryland police departments originally went on record saying that they would continue their policies of sampling certain criminal suspects upon arrest. The Baltimore County police department and the Ann Arundel County police department had planned to wait on a decision as to whether the ruling would be appealed before halting their DNA sampling policies. In addition, the Baltimore City police department and the Howard County police department did not immediately suspend their DNA sampling policies, but rather were waiting specific instructions from the Maryland state public safety department, who is responsible for the sampling in those jurisdictions. These police departments did back down from their initial reluctance to follow the Maryland Court of Appeals ruling, and have now joined the state police in directing employees to suspend DNA sampling upon arrest.