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handcuffs-2102488__480-300x169Criminal laws were at the forefront of the last few Maryland legislative sessions as lawmakers tackled highly controversial issues with prior marijuana and narcotics laws. Medical marijuana became state law just a couple years ago and now dispensaries are already selling their products to registered patients. Last year the hot topic was eliminating lengthy mandatory prison sentences for non-violent drug cases and streamlining the procedures for parole and probation violations. Both of these goals were achieved with the passage of the Justice Reinvestment Act, which also lowered the potential maximum punishment for not marijuana drug possession. The threshold for felony theft was also increased from $1,000 to $1,500, and other theft crimes were altered to account for inflation. Compared to the last few years there is little buzz around Annapolis with respect to new criminal legislation, but lawmakers know that nothing peaks the interest of the voting base like crime and will act accordingly when contemplating ideas for potential bills

Human trafficking is one crime that has stirred up debate among state lawmakers at this early stage of the 2018 legislative session. A Glen Burnie delegate already proposed to change adult human trafficking, which has a broad definition under Maryland law, from a misdemeanor to a felony. Taken literally human trafficking means the buying, selling or trading of human victims that are forced to engage in labor or sexual activity. It is estimated to be a one to two hundred billion dollar industry worldwide. In Maryland this law comes into play to punish any type of activity that furthers the business of prostitution. This includes providing a place for a prostitute to engage sexual activity, inducing or enticing someone to become a prostitute or profiting in any manner from solicitation. A person who is commonly referred to as a pimp is the prime target for this law.

Recently there has been an influx of undercover sting operations targeting human trafficking in the Baltimore metro area. Many of these stings take place in Anne Arundel County at a variety of BWI Airport hotels, but Howard County and Baltimore County police departments also take part in these stings at other locations. Police typically make contact with potential suspects by posting fake adds on the website Backpages. After a potential John responds to one of these fake adds an undercover police officer posing as a prostitute will attempt to agree to offer sex for money in one of the hotel rooms. As soon as an agreement is reached (or sometimes before) the undercover gives the takedown signal and a team from an adjacent room barges in to make the arrest for solicitation. This type of sting does not usually result in information leading to a human trafficking arrest, but the goal is to try to decrease the market for paid sex and thereby reduce the amount of pimps and prostitutes. Human trafficking cases typically begin with the arrest of a prostitute who agrees to give police information about their pimp. It is a complete defense for a person arrested on prostitution charges to assert they were working under duress or pressure from a pimp, and police often use this portion of the law as a selling point for cooperation.

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weed4-300x194Maryland already has some of the toughest gun laws in the country, and now the medical marijuana program may contribute to even tighter restrictions on gun ownership in the state. The Attorney General recently went on record stating his office would no longer sit back and let the states implement marijuana policy without the threat of federal government interference. This doesn’t necessarily mean (we hope) that the DEA is plotting to raid recreational and medical marijuana grow houses and dispensaries across the country, but there is certainly some cause for concern. Here in Maryland the medical marijuana program just became functional after years of work by thousands of people who put in time and millions of dollars for the little green plant to become available with a doctor’s approval. The program is not going anywhere, so patients and investors probably need not fear the worst. But there may have to be some sort of effort to keep the feds at bay, and a firearms crackdown could serve this purpose.

In order to appease the justice department, the Maryland State Police may become more involved in policing long standing federal policy that users of illegal drugs are prohibited from purchasing or receiving guns. The gun control act under 18 U.S.C 921 lays out certain prohibitions for receiving a firearm, and a violation of this federal statute could be punishable by up to 10 years in prison and a whopping $250,000 fine. Each person who purchases a firearm in Maryland is required to fill out a federal firearms transaction record, which is monitored by the ATF. One of the questions on the form asks whether the gun purchaser is an unlawful user of marijuana, narcotics, or any other controlled substances, and then in bold type states that “the use or possession of marijuana remains unlawful under Federal law regardless of whether it has been legalized or decriminalized for medicinal or recreational purposes in the state where you reside”. A person who answers yes to this question is unequivocally barred from purchasing a gun, and a Maryland medical marijuana card will do nothing to prevent the feds from filing charges.

It is difficult to enforce the provision of the gun control act that bars illegal drug users from purchasing handguns for obvious reasons. Gun shops are not administering polygraph tests to prospective buyers, and the ATF cannot show up at a recent gun purchaser’s door to administer a drug test. But in Maryland all medical marijuana patients are required to sign a release allowing the state health department to disclose the identity of cardholders to the state police. This would give the state police all the ammunition it needs to assist the feds in enforcing the federal gun control act. The worry is that state and local law enforcement may start arresting medical marijuana patients who purchase guns in order to set an example, and to appease the justice department now that its leader has taken a public stance against weed. For the near future Maryland residents will have to choose between purchasing or receiving a firearm and enrolling in the medical marijuana program. Even card holders who have yet to make their first purchase of medical pot should worry when buying a firearm, as the mere fact of their enrollment in the program could lead to major criminal liability. After all the progress we have made in last decade with respect to marijuana policy, the AG’s recent statements are a major step in the wrong direction. The only real solution is for Congress to get together and scrap federal laws making marijuana a controlled substance. We are confident this will happen eventually, but waiting on lawmakers to right a wrong is a frustrating proposition to say the least.

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IMG_7858-e1515083729598-225x300Multiple police departments in Maryland have posted messages on social media warning local residents to take proper care of their pets amidst the current run of frigid cold temperatures. Anne Arundel County Police sent the word out via Facebook post, which focused on dog owners who choose to leave their pup outside unattended in the cold weather. The police department provided specific guidelines during a severe weather animal emergency including maintaining a constant supply of non-frozen drinking water and using a dog house that is equipped to protect against the elements. The houses must have a usable door flap pointed away from prevailing winds, abundant dry bedding and be situated at least 2 inches above the ground (or any snowfall on top of the ground). Police also warned that houses or shelters that are too large to maintain a temperature above 33 degrees are unsafe for dogs, and any shelter may not be suitable if the “feels like” temperature drops below 20 degrees. During the last week and for the next few days a “feels like” temperature of 20 degrees may seem like summer, and thus no dogs should be left unattended outside for the foreseeable future. Those who fail to comply with the Anne Arundel County law during severe weather animal emergencies face civil fines up $1,000, confiscation of the animal and the potential for criminal charges for animal abuse or neglect.

Montgomery County issued a similar message, reminding residents that during weather emergencies pets must not be left outside unattended. The county police department gave a stern warning that leaving animals outside in these conditions may be considered an act of cruelty, and owners could be subject to criminal charges. The Montgomery County code provides a civil fine of up to $500,which police officers could charge in addition to the state statute regarding abuse or neglect of an animal. Under section 10-604 of the Maryland criminal code anyone who deprives an animal of necessary sustenance or inflicts unnecessary pain or suffering upon an animal could be found guilty of a misdemeanor and sentenced to up to 90 days in jail and a $1,000 fine. In addition, a conviction could result in the defendant being prohibited from owning pets in the future and being compelled to participate in psychological counseling at their own expense. If the police deem that the cruelty was intentional they may charge a defendant with aggravated animal cruelty under 10-606, which is a felony with a 3-year maximum prison sentence and a $5,000 fine. As with many criminal cases in Maryland, police officers will typically charge a suspect with the maximum relevant offense even if there is unconvincing evidence that it occurred.

Animal cruelty is a serious charge in Maryland and should be handled with extreme care to prevent penalties including a permanent criminal conviction and even jail time. An attorney could help obtain a dismissal or prevent criminal charges from being filed in the first place. In some cases police officers or animal control will confiscate the pet before making a determination whether to file charges. A lawyer can communicate with these agencies to try to work out an alternative resolution to the filing of criminal charges. Benjamin Herbst is an experienced Maryland animal abuse attorney who handles cases in all jurisdictions. Contact Benjamin today at 410–207-2598 for a free consultation.

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arguing-1296392_1280-300x212The holiday season is supposed to be a time for families to come together and enjoy each other’s company, but unfortunately it takes more than holiday cheer to keep relationships from going awry. Most couples, friends, family members and neighbors are able to get along with each other just fine and will never have to deal with the stress of the court system. For those that aren’t so lucky it is important to understand your rights and the avenues available in order to clear your name. In Maryland there are two types of legal proceedings where the courts will assist in keeping the peace between feuding individuals. The most common is called a protective order, which applies to family members, current and former spouses, partners who have been sexually active within the last year and parents who share a child. If a person wants the courts assistance with an individual who does not fit in one of these categories then a peace order must be filed. Former friends, co-workers or others in a business relationship, and neighbors who can’t get along are the most common parties to a peace order.   Peace orders can last up to 6 months or 1 year with good cause and protective orders up to 1 year or 2 with good cause.

Peace orders and Protective orders begin in the District Court where the petitioner asking for a no contact order or order to vacate a home fills out a sworn statement and submits it to the court commissioner. The petitioner will then appear before a judge at a temporary hearing to swear to the alleged facts under oath. Judges will typically grant temporary protective orders or peace orders because the standard is low and they only last about 7 days. The judge must only find reasonable grounds to believe the respondent (defendant) committed the acts alleged. If a judge grants a temporary protective order against you it is important to remain calm and seek legal advice. A temporary protective or peace order is not final and you still have a chance to defend yourself at an evidentiary hearing, and if you win the final hearing and the order is dismissed you will be able to shield the case from public view. The standard of proof at a final hearing is called preponderance of the evidence, which means the petitioner must convince the judge more likely than not that the allegations occurred.

Preponderance of the evidence is the same standard used in violation of probation hearings, and while it is not as high as proof beyond a reasonable doubt used in criminal trials, it still requires that the petitioner convince the judge. If there is no objective evidence, unbiased witnesses such as a police officers, and the respondent denies the allegation then the judge should dismiss the order. One party’s word against the other’s with nothing more should not be enough to satisfy the burden of proof, but judges have the final say. It is always important to prepare an effective cross examination of the accuser and contacting a lawyer is one way to make sure this happens. Bringing evidence such as pictures or text messages may be another effective way to challenge the petitioner’s accusations.

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Heroin2-300x180Maryland law enforcement agencies have devoted millions of dollars to combat the state heroin epidemic but despite their efforts most agencies are still playing catch up when it comes to the infamous synthetic opioid known as fentanyl. The powerful substance is not a new commodity, though its popularity has skyrocketed over the last couple of years. Fentanyl is now so common that many street level narcotics dealers don’t even realize they’re selling it to customers looking to buy heroin. The availability of fentanyl is based on the most elementary economic principle of supply and demand. It began with the rebirth of heroin, which arguably was created by the nationwide crackdown of prescription narcotic abuse spearheaded by the DEA. Heroin became a viable replacement for the thousands of people that were once hooked on oxycodone and similar substances, but whom were not able to find a constant supply due to restrictions on pharmaceutical companies, pharmacies, and pain clinics.

While heroin became easier to obtain than powerful prescription narcotics, it is not a substance that’s native to the United States, and is still not readily available in large quantities. To fill the void, drug dealers began to realize that mixing small amounts of synthetic fentanyl would increase or keep the potency of their product while decreasing the amount of heroin necessary. In some cases synthetic fentanyl has completely replaced heroin on the streets, as most users cannot even tell the difference. Add to the equation that synthetic fentanyl is exponentially stronger than heroin, thus requiring smaller amounts per street level capsule, and the fact that there is an unlimited supply from illegal laboratories overseas, and it’s easy to see how fentanyl became an epidemic almost overnight. Demand is as high as ever and the supply keeps coming in from all corners of the globe, a reality that is not lost on law enforcement agencies in Maryland.

Police departments around have ramped up their efforts to take down fentanyl suppliers, and this past week the state police announced the arrest of a major supplier on the Eastern Shore. A 37-year old Salisbury man was taken into custody and charged with several CDS violations including possession of a large amount, manufacturing and possession with intent to distribute narcotics. After tracking the man for a few months police ultimately executed search warrants that yielded close to one pound of an especially potent fentanyl compound. Police also recovered marijuana and drug paraphernalia they say is consistent with distribution. The large amount charges were unaffected by the justice reinvestment act that became law in October, and still carry mandatory prison sentences upon conviction. The defendant is still being held at the Wicomico County Detention Center, and has a preliminary hearing set for early January in the district court. Prosecutors will no doubt try to make an example of this defendant, thus making a competent defense attorney extremely important.

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handgun-231699_640-300x169The U.S. Attorney’s Office for the District of Maryland recently announced that a Prince George’s County man has been sentenced to more than four years in federal prison for illegal possession of a firearm. While a gun possession case may not seem like a newsworthy headline considering all the violent crime and police corruption currently taking place in the Baltimore metro area, this case is worthy of discussion because law enforcement never actually recovered a gun. Rather, state and federal officers built their case around a video they viewed on Twitter, which depicted the defendant in possession of a semi-automatic handgun.

Law enforcement used the Twitter video to obtain warrants to view additional social media accounts as well as search warrants for the defendants two known residences. The social media warrants yielded more pictures of the defendant with guns and the home search warrants produced a box of ammunition with the defendant’s fingerprints on it, but there was never an actual physical gun that police tied to the defendant. Nonetheless the defendant and counsel must have felt the government had enough evidence and struck a plea deal for the four-year sentence. Firearms have a broad meaning under federal law, and there is no requirement that the gun be working and operable at the time of the offense. Possession of anything readily converted to expel a projectile is all the government needs to prove, and detailed pictures or videos along with testimony from a firearms expert could be enough. The video in this case apparently showed a close up of the gun’s magazine and the bullets, and feds stated the defendant could be clearly seen loading the gun.

The defendant ultimately pled guilty to one count of possession of a firearm by a prohibited person. This offense is similar to the Maryland state law that prohibits certain individuals from possessing guns under the public safety code. There are nine categories of prohibited persons including convicted felons, fugitives, habitual drug users and those who have been involuntarily committed to a mental institution. Also included in the prohibition are persons who have been convicted of a misdemeanor crime of domestic violence or who are subject to a qualifying domestic protection order. The defendant was recently found guilty of second degree assault in the Ellicott City district court, and has numerous other offenses and prior protection orders that may have disqualified him from gun possession. Under federal law the penalty for illegal possession of a firearm is a maximum of ten years, but the actual sentence is typically based on the guidelines. Naturally those found guilty of this offense almost always have a criminal record that will contribute to a higher guideline score, though the bottom of the guidelines with no record is still more than a year in jail for this offense.

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police-224426__180A veteran Baltimore City Police officer pled guilty this week to a racketeering conspiracy that included as many as nine robberies, many of which took place at the homes of city residents. The Maryland U.S. Attorney’s Office announced the guilty plea after a hearing at the Baltimore federal courthouse. While the officer is not the first, and likely won’t be the last, to admit to robbing private citizens he is the highest-ranking officer implicated. The 59-year old sergeant from the Linthicum Heights area of Anne Arundel County has been on the force since 1996, and became officer-in-charge of the department’s gun trace task force in 2013. BPD formed the task force with the hopes of establishing a specialized unit more capable of solving firearm crimes, but the crimes committed by members of the task has outweighed any positive crime-fighting impacts.

The veteran officer admitted by way of his plea that he participated in nine robberies while employed by Baltimore Police, and that during the robberies he was armed with his service weapon. There is no indication the officer pled guilty to armed robbery, but these charges could have been dismissed pursuant to the plea agreement. Some of the robberies occurred as the officer and his co-conspirators carried out search warrants at the homes of individuals that were under investigation for drug distribution. The guilty officers often found large amounts of cash at these homes, and rather than submit the cash into evidence as required they would pocket most of the money, and then create false property receipts for the small remaining sums. Federal prosecutors even alleged that one of the robbery victims was shot and killed as a result of becoming indebted to a drug dealer after the officers stole $10,000 from his home.

Perhaps the most egregious part of the plea were the allegations made by federal prosecutors that the co-conspirators robbed citizens who were not even suspected of criminal activity. In order to cover up these robberies as lawful police activity this sergeant assisted in crafting fictitious arrest reports, incident reports and charging documents, that were sworn to and sent to judicial officers. Innocent citizens were basically terrorized by armed police officers in their homes and then jailed for the sole reason of covering up the theft of a few thousand dollars. The officer admitted to personally participating in the theft of over $90,000, but this money was likely divided up between other co-conspirators. Regardless, no amount of money would be worth the 20 years in prison the officer will face at a February sentencing hearing.

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weed4-300x194Almost five years ago Maryland residents began hearing talk that a state sponsored medical marijuana program was on the horizon. Despite numerous states already having established successful medical cannabis programs, our elected officials decided to pave their own way and craft a program that was unique to Maryland. These lawmakers eventually passed a severely underwhelming medical cannabis bill that only allowed academic institutions to administer the program. To the surprise of approximately nobody there weren’t any takers of this ridiculous platform requiring universities to dedicate time and money to study something that they already knew the answer (marijuana helps people). After a wasted year lawmakers once again convened and passed laws establishing an actual functioning program that would be run by the private sector and heavily policed by the state. A commission was formed to craft rules and regulations, and eventually to set up procedure for grower and dispensary applications.

On paper everything seemed in place, but actually building the program from the ground up proved more difficult for all parties involved (despite the abundance of information and resources from other states). The commission was underfunded and appointed members lacked expertise and experience, which led to delays and disgruntled applicants. Fast-forward to today and all the medical marijuana investors are still waiting to make their first buck from the program, and most will never recoup their losses. Now though, the day is finally imminent when the first legal marijuana transaction will take place.

The founder of a dispensary in Frederick was recently on record stating he believes his shop will begin selling marijuana by the first week in December, which is hard to believe for those that have been following the progress (or lack thereof) of the program. On the other hand, the day has to come eventually so why not be optimistic about at early holiday season? While the dispensary founder was cautious to put a guarantee on this statement he did add that his staff of ten is ready to serve the patients who are undoubtedly growing impatient. Owners of another dispensary in Salisbury are also confident of a 2017 opening, though this Wicomico County shop is not expecting a grand opening next week.

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apple-256261_1280-300x199Public school officials in Wicomico County have confirmed the arrest of one of their teachers for numerous drug offenses, including five felony drug violations. The 51-year old female Salisbury special education teacher was arrested by deputy sheriffs as she drove off school property, and a search of her car allegedly yielded over 100 capsules of heroin along with several hundred oxycodone pills. Police also recovered suboxone strips and $3,000 cash. She was taken to the detention center and booked on numerous Maryland drug crimes including possession with intent to distribute narcotics and CDS possession of a large amount. The latter charge carries a 5-year mandatory prison sentence upon conviction, and also the possibility of a $100,000 fine. Just one day after her arrest the teacher was released from the detention center on a $50,000 bail set by a district court judge. A preliminary hearing is currently set for December 7th, but this hearing will likely be cancelled in lieu of the State’s Attorney filing a criminal information or bringing the case before a grand jury.

In addition to the drug crimes mentioned above the teacher also faces two counts of possession with intent to distribute on school property under 5-627 of the criminal code. Many states have crafted laws that impose additional sanctions for conducting drug activity on school property, and Maryland also has similar laws regarding firearms and other weapons. The statute defines school property as the grounds of an elementary or secondary school plus a 1000-foot radius extending outward in all directions. At trial the state would introduce a certified copy of a map depicting the boundary to prove the offense occurred on school property. A defendant found guilty of this offense faces a 20-year maximum prison sentence, which is the same as possession with intent to distribute narcotics. There is a 5-year mandatory sentence, but it only applies to repeat offenders. The real kicker is that a sentence imposed under the school drug dealing law must be consecutive with any other sentenced imposed in the case. A defendant found guilty of this offense thus faces double the amount of time he or she normally would in a possession with intent case. This consecutive sentencing provision gives the law teeth, and in theory should act as a true deterrent.

The teacher has been placed on administrative leave pending the outcome of the court case, but an internal investigation by the school board could be wrapped up much sooner. It appears the Salisbury woman was already given a second chance, as she received a probation before judgment for a theft charge in Howard County back in 2011. That case was eligible for expungement, but now that the teacher has pending charges it appears the theft case will stay part of the public record. You cannot expunge a criminal case in Maryland while you have unresolved criminal cases or if you have received a conviction for a different case between the time you became eligible and the time you filed for expungement. The Blog will follow this Wicomico County case and others involving public officials or government employees. The media seems to really grasp hold of these cases, but our hope is always that these defendants will be treated as any other defendant that enters a criminal court.

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packs-163497_1280-300x200Last spring a large-scale investigation began in order to locate nearly $40,000 in funds that went missing from the Montgomery County Council of PTAs. The council represents 192 parent-teacher associations from individual schools, making it the single largest PTA organization in the state of Maryland. Members first noticed irregularities in the books back in March and then conducted a three-week internal audit, which revealed that money had been improperly taken from the council’s checking account for about nine months. The money consisted of donations and fundraising event proceeds that would ultimately be used to better the public school experience for students, teachers and parents, and the loss of $40,000 severely limited the council’s ability to plan for the upcoming school year. While the audit did provide some answers, the person or persons responsible for the missing funds remained somewhat of a mystery (at least publicly) and the case was forwarded over to the Montgomery County Police.

Those familiar with the day-to-day operations of the council likely had their suspicions that the newly appointed treasurer was responsible for the missing money. The irregularities began around the time she began her post, and ended after she had resigned in March. Apparently around $10,000 was actually returned to the account in February, around the time that council members noticed something wasn’t right and began asking questions. The former treasurer was not officially charged by the State’s Attorney’s Office in the circuit court until last month, though negotiations between lawyers on both sides had been ongoing before that. A plea agreement was filed by both parties on the same day as the charging document, and the former treasurer will learn her fate at a disposition hearing set for later this month. Maryland sentencing guidelines in this particular case call for a sentence of probation to 6 months in jail, and judges typically adhere to these guidelines. It would be reasonable to expect the judge to invoke a split sentence of county jail time under 6 months followed by probation with the condition that restitution to the council be paid in full.

While the amount in question certainly rises to a felony level theft, the charge of embezzlement is actually a misdemeanor under Maryland criminal law section 7-113. The new theft law as of October 1st makes it a felony to steal anything over $1,500 but legally speaking embezzlement and theft are two separate concepts. Theft consists of unlawfully obtaining the property or services of another, while embezzlement occurs when a person has lawful possession or control of something (money in this case) and uses or secretes if for the wrong purpose. In this case the former treasurer had control over the council’s account, so she did not actually steal anything. Rather, she used the account for a purpose that was contrary to her duty as a fiduciary. The embezzlement law still carries a mandatory jail sentence of one year, but this can be avoided by the imposition of a probation before judgment, or by the imposition of a suspended sentence. Most crimes with minimum mandatory sentences, like firearm crimes, specifically do not allow for suspended sentences or PBJs but this statute does not contain any such language. The Blog will follow this case and may post a follow up article if anything unpredictable occurs at the disposition hearing.