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.
Recently in Maryland Legislature Category
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.
Soon after the close of each year's legislative session the governor signs dozens of bills into law. The public typically hears about these new laws at the three main stages when the media can report a concrete story. First we read about a bill being introduced in the house or senate, which is usually in January. Then there's an article or two about the bill's passage by the General Assembly a couple months later, and finally we hear about the governor signing on the dotted line in the spring. After the governor signs the bills there is a yearly downtime that usually lasts about six months until the fall when the laws go into effect. In some years there is no buildup to the October 1st effective date because the new laws simply don't generate enough interest. This year is not one of those years. It's the criminal laws that often receive the most attention, and in 2014 there were a host of them that the public and media were following. No new law has received as much press as marijuana decriminalization, and although as times it seemed like a pipedream, as of today we can officially say it is not a crime to possess less than 10 grams of pot in Maryland.
As the Medical Marijuana Commission inches closer to establishing a viable program in Maryland, there are still numerous key details that need to be hammered out. The Commission was established soon after the governor signed the revised medical marijuana bill into law, and its fifteen members were tasked with drafting regulations for the program. These regulations were supposed to be handed over to the health secretary and a group of state lawmakers this week, but now it appears the commission will seek public comment before submitting the program regulations for formal review. The commission made the draft regulations available to the public by posting them on the DHMH website, and they have already received abundant feedback. The four page PDF, which can be found here, outlines the application process for obtaining a growers license in Maryland, and the criteria for which applications will be judged. Those reading the draft application for the first time may be surprised just how demanding the process will be, and the commission can afford to be selective considering there will be only fifteen licenses awarded in the next two years.
The Maryland Firearms Safety Act went into effect almost one year ago, and at that time most of the news stories were centered on record sales at state gun shops, which resulted in many of the popular handgun models being sold out at local stores. There were also numerous articles about overwhelming demand for the state police to complete background checks. Those who purchased firearms prior to the October 1st, 2013 effective date were not required to submit their fingerprints, but due to the shear number of applications were still forced to wait months for law enforcement clearance. There were a few scattered articles about those in opposition to the strict law, such as the NRA and other Second Amendment lobbyist groups. Each of these groups expressed a strong desire to challenge the law, but at the time it just didn't seem as if they would have any success. Marylanders were acting as if the strict statewide gun regulations were there to stay, and last summer's rush to buy firearms proved that. And now we can officially say that the Firearms Safety Act is in fact here to stay, as a federal judge recently upheld it as constitutional in a 47-page opinion.
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.
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 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.
This week the state senate for a second time voted to decriminalize simple possession of marijuana. The bill included a few modifications, which the house inserted over the weekend in order to satisfy enough delegates. Among the modifications is a provision that escalates the fine from $100 to $250 and then to $500 for a second and third offense respectively. In addition anyone who is charged with a third or subsequent offense will be summoned to appear for court, and if convicted may be ordered to complete a drug evaluation and follow up treatment. Offenders under the age of 21 who are charged with civil pot possession will also be summoned to appear in court. Simple pot possession for anyone under 18 is still a criminal offense that would be handled in the juvenile system. There is also a new provision that states all the fines collected by the District Court for these citations will go directly to the state health department, and can only be used for drug education programs. Governor O'Malley has already said that he'll sign the bill into law when it crosses his desk, so decriminalization is certain to be law in Maryland within the next few months. However it's not so certain just how the law will be implemented, and how efficiently the court system will be able to handle these new civil marijuana citations.
Marijuana dominated the media attention in the first three months of this year's legislative session, but state lawmakers once again made little progress when it came time to vote. Today though, delegates will convene to conduct one last vote before we can say that the 2014 proposals to decriminalize pot in Maryland are shelved for the year. This past week a House committee shot down any hope of major marijuana reform taking place in the near future. This includes a pair of legalization bills sponsored by Delegate Anderson and Senator Raskin, and a pair of more publicized decriminalization bills sponsored by Delegate Mizeur and Senator Zirkin. Unfortunately the legalization bills never really had a chance of gaining momentum, but decriminalization actually won the senate's approval, and by a wide margin. House support proved too difficult to garner, as decriminalization failed to make it out of committee and to the house floor for a full vote. But in a recent development, the bill received some last minute revival efforts, and lawmakers are meeting as this post is being published. So as of right now we still may see a bill to make simple pot possession a civil infraction actually come to O'Malley's desk.
When the General Assembly passed the first medical marijuana law in state history last year it was immediately criticized for being a pipe dream, pun intended. The criticisms proved entirely warranted, as Maryland is no closer to a functioning medical marijuana program than it was before the governor signed the bill into law. The current program is filled with red tape including overbearing regulation and reporting requirements, and it limits medical marijuana providers to research hospitals. Hospitals that are forced to provide data and reports for something they already know, that marijuana does in fact serve a medical purpose. As a result of the convoluted web of regulations exactly zero research hospitals have signed on, and the program as gone nowhere since October 1st. But despite never getting off the ground, last year's medical marijuana law may have been the shot in the arm our state needed to build momentum toward enacting a law that is reasonably likely to function. It might be giving lawmakers too much credit to say this was their intended purpose, to pass a law just for the sake of putting something including the words marijuana and legal on the books in order to start the conversation. On the other hand, this week we received the first glimpse from lawmakers that Maryland really may be moving toward providing legal pot to those who need it, and now a plan dating back to last year actually seems plausible. The glimpse came in the form of a landslide vote in the state senate to dramatically overhaul last year's medical marijuana law.
It has been a relatively quiet week in the Maryland Legislature, but there were a few headlines coming out of Annapolis. On the marijuana front, a decriminalization bill co-sponsored by Senators Zirkin and Kittleman passed the Judicial Proceedings Committee by a vote of 8-3. Senate Bill 364 is now headed to the Senate floor for a full vote, though the real fate of the bill will likely come down to whether the House has changed its tune since rejecting a similar proposal last year. Bill 364 only decriminalizes possession of less than 10 grams of marijuana, which is currently a misdemeanor punishable by a maximum jail sentence of 90 days and a $500 fine. The proposal would transform possession of less than ten grams from a criminal case to a civil case, and the maximum punishment would be a fine of $100. A person who receives a pot citation would be able to pay the fine to close out the case, or could elect a trial. The trial process would be similar to a traffic ticket, where the district court would set a trial date and subpoena the issuing officer. Failure to show up for an elected trial date would constitute a misdemeanor under the new bill. There are no specific provisions that address increased penalties for repeat offenders, and presumably a person could keep racking up citations and the maximum penalty would never change.
The bail review process in Maryland could be headed for some major changes as the current system is slated for review in the Court of Appeals on March 7th. Nearly eight years ago a group of detainees in the Baltimore City jail filed a class action lawsuit challenging the state's bail review process. Specifically they challenged the first appearance procedure where a recently arrested defendant goes before a court commissioner for a bail review. Under the current state law no detainee is entitled to an attorney at this first appearance, and the commissioner is free to make whatever determination he or she decides. Court commissioners are not judges or lawyers, and no legal experience is required for the job. The ones who typically suffer are poor, non violent offenders who can be forced to sit in custody for days or even weeks on bails as low as a few hundred dollars. But it's not only the poor who suffer, as some commissioners have the tendency to impose egregiously high bail amounts for cases without putting forth the effort to completely examine the circumstances of the case. The issue scheduled for debate is whether having an attorney present at the commissioner bail reviews would prevent unjust and unnecessary pre-trial detention, and if the cost to provide lawyers at these hearings is worth the potential benefit.
It seems that sparks fly and countless news headlines appear each time the marijuana debate hits the floors of the state legislature. This past week was no different, as a spirited discussion drew unprecedented crowds, which spilled into the hallways of the Maryland State House. The issue of changing the state's archaic and costly pot laws has been the same for the past couple of years, but new and unpredictable drama arises each time this topic is up for discussion. On Tuesday in Annapolis, state lawmakers were joined by cops, college students, parents, and professionals, and each had strong opinions on the subject. Some of these opinions were based on personal experience, such as the parent who testified that her son's career opportunities had been damaged by a prior arrest possession of about ten grams of marijuana. There was also a college student who described the embarrassing and degrading experience of being arrested, strip searched, and jailed for pot possession.