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football-1503586_1280-1-214x300There are two illegal recreational activities that a large majority of the adult population feels should be allowed, and if and when this happens the state stands to rake in millions of dollars in new tax revenue. The first is recreational marijuana use, which is now supported by over 60 percent of the Maryland population according to the latest polls. The actual percentage of those in favor of legalizing pot is probably closer to 70 percent as many young adults do not participate in these polls. We previously posted an article about legislation to legalize recreational marijuana use, and will continue to follow its progress. The second illegal recreational activity currently being debated is sports gambling. You don’t need a poll to tell you the majority of adults support sports gambling- all you need is common sense. Every law office or other workplace with more than a few employees has a Super Bowl or March Madness gambling pool, and most have fantasy sports leagues that play for pride and more importantly money. Americans wagered an estimated five billion dollars on the Super Bowl this year, and since Vegas has the only legal sports books, over 95 percent of these bets were illegal. Bottom line is that the people want to bet on sports, and are doing it regardless of whether it is legal.

March Madness brackets and Super Bowl box pools are generally reserved for casual fans, some of which would not otherwise follow the games. This type of betting is safe and is of little or no concern to law enforcement. But regular betting on the outcome of games is a different animal. Bettors are required to use bookies or use offshore betting websites in order to place illegal bets, and there is no security or regulation within this industry. Bookmakers often take bets on credit and charge exorbitant interest or juice when their money is not paid on time. Offshore betting websites can disappear or be shut down at anytime, and bettors could lose their profits without any legal recourse. On top of all of this, the state is making absolutely no tax revenue on this activity, and to the contrary is forced to use justice system resources to attempt to police these illegal operations. The simple alternative is to legalize, tax and regulate sports gambling, and thankfully the Maryland legislature is about to take a big step in this direction.

House Bill 989 is set to hit the floor in Annapolis on March 1st, and if approved would establish a task force to study the federal climate on sports gaming and then make recommendations for how to implement it. The task force would be made up of members of the State Senate, the House of Delegates and members of the State Lottery and Horse Racing groups. The members would reports their findings and recommendations to the Governor on December 1st of each year. Fantasy sports gambling and betting on horse racing is already legal in Maryland, and the lottery advertises like crazy to get us to buy Powerball tickets and scratch offs. The lotto has even installed automated machines in many convenience stores to make it extra easy to take our money. There is simply no logical argument to be made against legalizing sports gambling, and thus there are obvious parallels to legalizing recreational marijuana. Let us just hope that within a reasonable time frame both become legal, taxed and regulated.

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Lawmakers are set to debate at least two new bills in the coming weeks aimed at combating skyrocketing narcotic overdose numbers. The first bill, which was introduced by delegates from Harford County and Anne Arundel County, would add a separate crime to the books targeting distributors of heroin and fentanyl. If House Bill 612 becomes law it would punish those found guilty of supplying the heroin or fentanyl that results in a deadly overdose. As it stands now the law would carry a 30-year maximum prison sentence, which could be imposed in addition to a sentence for drug distribution. There is an immunity clause within the statute that would apply to anyone who provides assistance for a person who is experiencing a medical emergency after using these two dangerous drugs. Any information given to medical providers by a person that supplied the heroin or fentanyl would be inadmissible, which in theory would serve to dissuade those from failing to render aid to an overdose victim out of fear of prosecution.

This new law could be effective provided that the law enforcement and state and local health officials get the word out about its existence. It may cause some drug dealers to think twice about selling heroin or fentanyl, which would be a win for lawmakers. As a practical matter though, the law probably would not have much of an effect in the courtroom. A person who is arrested for supplying illegal drugs that result in a deadly overdose already faces a 20-year maximum penalty for distribution of narcotics. And a judge would certainly take into account the fact that someone died as a result of the defendant’s conduct, making a lengthy prison sentence likely even without the new law. In addition, a state’s attorney could elect to charge the dealer with manslaughter and or reckless endangerment, which is a general crime that is defined as engaging in conduct that causes a substantial risk of death or serious injury to another. Manslaughter carries a 10-year maximum penalty while reckless endangerment carries 5 years, and these sentences could be consecutive to any sentence for drug distribution. Some jurisdictions such as Worcester County have already tried and convicted drug dealers for manslaughter, but House Bill 612 would achieve the same purpose while presenting less of a challenge to prosecutors.

In the coming weeks we may also see a law hit the State House floor in Annapolis that would limit narcotics prescriptions to a seven-day supply. There would definitely be exceptions for patients experiencing severe symptoms from certain terminal and long-term illnesses, and there may be other exceptions as well. This proposal, which came from the governor’s office, aims to limit the excess amount of prescription narcotics on the streets. Patients suffering from chronic pain are able to easily secure prescriptions for hundreds of narcotic pills per month, and many illegally sell some of their supply in order to fund their addiction. Others simply have a hard time keeping track of their medications and become victims to thefts by burglars, home workers, houseguests and even family members. Maryland would not be the first state to pass a law restricting opioid prescriptions, as at least seven other states already have strict laws on their books. The Blog will continue to follow the progress of these two proposals, and we may post a follow up article in the coming weeks, so stay tuned.

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cannabis-1418339__340-300x290Medical marijuana has made frequent appearances in the local news headlines over the last few years as the program has been wrought with controversy over long delays and alleged unfair awarding of grower licenses. Litigation further threatens a successful launch of the program within the next year, but there is a sleeping giant lurking that could render all the back and fourth of the last three years moot. Legalizing marijuana would instantly make an afterthought out of the medical marijuana program, which would essentially become the minor leagues. While marijuana has numerous legitimate medical uses and can work wonders for patients, a large portion of the medical card holders will inevitably be made up of recreational users who obtained a card to be able to legally do something they enjoy.

There is no way hundreds of investors would put up millions of dollars to chase massive profits if their customer base was limited to those with an actual medical need for pot. The second marijuana is legalized most users will have no use for the medical program, save for the few diehards that would keep or obtain their cards to have access to a wider range of products at a cheaper price like in other states. It now seems as if Maryland is finally about to take the first step toward making legalization a reality.

This week lawmakers from both the Senate and the House of Delegates are expected to introduce legislation aimed at regulating and taxing the legal sale of recreational marijuana in Maryland. It’s a step that should have been taken years ago had lawmakers not been preoccupied with righting the sinking medical marijuana ship. The bills are currently in the process of being drafted, but they will likely consist of regulations similar to those currently in place with respect to the sale and consumption of alcohol. The age to legally use pot would be 21 and it would be illegal to consume it while driving. Adults could possibly be allowed to grow their own plants but there would be a likely cap of 6 plants with 3 being mature, and prior convictions for possession over 10 grams would be eligible for expungement. A separate law will likely be dedicated to taxing pot sales, with the State Comptroller’s Officer being tabbed with that responsibility. As much as half the profits from tax revenue could go toward public school funding, with other portions going to drug treatment and DUI prevention and education. The tax rate could be similar to the 9 percent rate currently in place for alcohol.

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thirteen-bags-of-marijuana-found-in-taxi-cabWhile the ruling was highly anticipated, it came as no surprise that The Court of Appeals unanimously held that the smell of marijuana during a traffic stop justifies an officer’s search of a vehicle. The decision handed down at the end of last week didn’t change anything, as law enforcement never stopped using the smell of pot to justify their searches. Rather the opinion will serve to temporarily put the issue to bed for at least a few years until it is rendered obsolete after marijuana is eventually legalized.

The Court of Appeals opinion handed down last Friday was actually a combined ruling for three separate cases and spelled bad news for the defendants that had been anxiously awaiting closure. Two of the cases originated in Baltimore City, and the other began in Cambridge at the Dorchester County Circuit Court. In all three cases the defendants filed motions to suppress evidence including marijuana, cocaine, oxycodone and drug paraphernalia, which was recovered after police officers conducted an automobile search. The justification for the searches was police officers allegedly smelling marijuana. All the defendants argued that at the time officers initiated the searches they did not have reasonable articulable suspicion to believe that the cars contained more than 10 grams of marijuana. Possession of less than 10 grams of marijuana was and still is only punishable by a civil fine, and therefore according to the defendants could not justify a search under the automobile exception to the Fourth Amendment.

The circuit court judges were not persuaded by the defendant’s positions, and sided with the state’s attorneys who argued that despite being only punishable by a civil fine, small amounts of marijuana remained contraband. They argued that decriminalization and legalization are not synonymous, and therefore the presence of any illegal substance justifies a broader search. All three cases traveled to the Court of Special Appeals, which is Maryland’s intermediate appellate court. This court denied the appeals in unpublished opinions and then state’s highest court accepted the cases on writs of certiorari. Arguments took place back in December, and it did not take long for the Court of Appeals to hand down the disappointing but legally sound opinion.

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money-941228__340-300x225Over the last decade law enforcement agencies around the country have increased efforts to curb the illegal sale of prescription medications. There has been increased governmental oversight starting from the drug manufacturers and trickling all the way down to the patient who fills a single prescription. Pharmaceutical manufacturers are required by law to report large and unusual orders for narcotics to the DEA and pharmacies are required to keep strict inventory of these highly addictive drugs. Doctors who prescribe the drugs face tighter regulations from their state medical boards, and pain management clinics or “pill mills” that were once untouchable are being shut down and prosecuted at a higher rate. Local police have also targeted prescription fraud and doctor shopping cases, and the word is out that pharmacies won’t hesitate to call the cops at the sign of foul play. The law enforcement community has achieved some success in limiting the amount of dangerous prescription drugs such as oxycodone on the streets, but their success has come with a price.

Heroin is now as popular and as cheap as ever, and filled the void left by the shortage of street level prescription drugs without so much as a hiccup. And despite the short supply of prescription narcotics on the street, the demand is still there. Users and dealers have not simply forgotten about oxycontin, morphine and fentanyl. But the shortage of theses drugs has driven up the price and made them more attractive to the dealers who do manage to get their hands on the product. This has left pharmacies, especially the smaller independent type, extremely vulnerable to theft by way of burglary and robbery. Most pharmacy thefts occur at night when the businesses are closed.  The thieves are well versed with all drugs that can be sold on the street for a profit, and know that the narcotics are often locked away in another location. Though burglars will often break in to the pharmacies equipped with crowbars and lock cutters, these tools are ineffective if the high margin narcotics are locked up in a safe overnight. Unfortunately the only way to steal these drugs is to rob the pharmacies during business hours, which is a terrifying and dangerous alternative to nighttime burglary. It is also comes with a greater risk of serious prison time upon begin caught, as one man from Washington D.C. recently found out.

The U.S. Attorney’s Office announced the D.C. man linked to a series of pharmacy robberies in Prince George’s County has been sentenced to 150 months in federal prison where he will join his two other co-conspirators. The conspiracy included as many as four separate armed robberies that netted in excess of $20,000 worth of oxycodone. The defendants wore ski masks and at least one brandished a handgun, while another used pepper spray on two customers at a Hyattsville pharmacy. In one of the robberies in Berwyn Heights, Maryland the defendants stole an employee’s cell phone and wallet that included credit cards and identification cards. The FBI and the Prince George’s County Police Department cleared the cases, which landed all three defendants lengthy prison terms.

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elections-1527438_1280-300x300The 2017 Maryland legislative session began this week, and one former delegate probably wishes he took part in the opening day festivities. But instead of shaking hands and schmoozing in Annapolis, a former lawmaker from Prince George’s County spent the first part of his New Year inside a Greenbelt courtroom. This week federal prosecutors announced a recently unsealed guilty plea by a former state and local politician who served 10 years as a PG county councilman before being elected to his most recent position as a state delegate in 2014. His stint as a state lawmaker didn’t last long after he unexpectedly resigned just one year after taking office, and now there is a good explanation for the sudden resignation. It turns out that the feds had been investigating the 42-year old Hyattsville man for a few years, and their investigation culminated in the recent guilty plea to conspiracy and bribery. Federal prosecutors revealed that the man had accepted an estimated $40,000 in return for political favors, most of which had to do with his power over the allocation of public funds earmarked for his district. The illegal activity was not confined to one or even a couple transactions, but rather a course of conduct that was anything but isolated. The multi year public corruption probe that uncovered the former delegate’s misdoings also implicated two members of the county’s liquor board and two local businessmen. Undercover FBI agents made numerous deals with the politicians that included cash payments for the promise of favorable treatment.

Each of the dirty politicians and their private citizen cohorts are being prosecuted federally by the United States Attorney’s Office for the District of Maryland. While the Blog has recently published a few articles about this office pursuing relatively small time gun and drug cases, public corruption and other white collar crimes are the U.S. Attorney’s bread and butter. State law enforcement and prosecution offices simply do not have the resources and perhaps the patience to execute multiyear public corruption investigations. On top of that it may be near impossible for local law enforcement agencies to keep these kinds of complex investigations under wraps, especially when they involve politicians holding office in their own jurisdictions. After all, state’s attorneys and even police chiefs are politicians too. But these cases are right in the FBI’s wheelhouse, and the federal prosecutors who eventually take over their cases have a great deal of pride in exposing crooked state and local politicians. We only wish the two could collaborate with as much success against federal politicians, who are rarely exposed.

The Blog will continue to follow this public corruption case and other similar cases that develop in the future. It seems as if this particular defendant cooperated with federal authorities and as a result will likely receive a more lenient sentence. Authorities have not stated exactly how the defendant cooperated or whether his cooperation directly led to the charging of the liquor board members, but we will post if this information comes to light. The former delegate faces up to 15 years in prison when he goes before a federal judge at his April sentencing hearing, and he has already agreed to pay $340,000 in criminal restitution.

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police-850054_960_720-300x212Baltimore Police made fewer arrests in 2016 than in 2015 and homicide numbers were slightly lower, but think twice before assuming the city was a safer place last year. The reality is that despite a 7 percent decrease in total arrests and 26 fewer murders, Baltimore was actually more dangerous in 2016 than any year in recent memory. Last year saw a staggering number of shootings in a city with a steadily declining population. All told the police department reported 936 shootings at year’s end, a number that came in just 60 shy of New York City’s number of shootings. The catch being that NYC has 14 times the population of Baltimore.

About 1 out of every three shootings ended up being deadly, which kept the homicide number above 300 for the second year in a row and placed Baltimore among the most deadly cities in America for gun violence in 2015. Another statistic to ponder is the 39 percent clearance (case closed by arrest) rate for Baltimore murders. The 39 percent clearance rate is one of the lowest in the country, but thankfully is up from 31 percent in 2015. 86 percent of people shot last year ended up dying from their injuries. This number appears to be higher than most other urban areas in the country due to the popularity of larger caliber firearms, and the frightening trend of Baltimore shooters using more bullets and firing their weapons from closer range. Over half of the deadly shootings in 2016 occurred on city streets and public places such as parks, which has devastating consequences for many innocent bystanders. Just over 10 percent of homicide victims were killed in their cars and a similar number were in their homes. Most victims were males between the ages of 18 and 24.

In addition to shootings skyrocketing, drug overdoses are approaching historic levels. This is a trend throughout most of Maryland, but Baltimore is the epicenter. Full year-end statistics for 2016 drug overdoses are not available yet, but as of October 1 there were 481 overdoses compared to 291 for the first 9 months of 2015. Heroin is responsible for a large percentage of these deadly overdoses, though the infusion of fentanyl on the streets may be playing an increased role as well. It is estimated that over 20,000 people in Baltimore use heroin, which is over 3 percent of the population. Other areas within Maryland that saw large increases in drug overdoses include Anne Arundel County, Baltimore County, Harford County and Howard County. As we mentioned in a previous post, health and law enforcement officials in less populated areas such as Bel Air face the same concerns as those in the city. More heroin users and an influx of powerful new drugs such as fentanyl will continue to rock the smaller communities and urban areas alike. The Blog will continue to follow the crime and drug overdose statistics from 2016 as new data is made public, and we may post a follow up article in the near future so stay tuned.

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hammer-719066_960_720-300x225While the U.S. Attorney’s Office is known for complex criminal prosecutions such as fraud, drug trafficking and gang activity, federal prosecutors also devote resources toward punishing corporations that stray from the law. Unlike a typical criminal prosecution where a defendant can end up in jail or on probation, when a corporation is being investigated for wrongdoing its employees and shareholders are not usually facing individual sentences. Rather, prosecutors use monetary punishments to reprimand companies and to send a message to other corporations contemplating similar wrongdoing. Any federal prosecutorial district could decide to go after a corporation conducting business in its district, and the District of Maryland recently closed up two massive investigations that resulted in fines as well as criminal sanctions for employees in one of the cases.

The first settlement was announced about a week ago at the Baltimore office of the U.S. Attorney for the District of Maryland, where the government agreed to close its investigation into a large pharmaceutical company in exchange for a $44 million dollar payment to the DOJ. This investigation centered on the company violating the Controlled Substance Act by failing to notify the DEA of large shipments of oxycodone to pharmacies in Maryland, Florida and New York. Federal law requires that pharmaceutical suppliers report all large or suspicious orders for controlled substances such as oxycodone, morphine, Xanax and fentanyl to the DEA, which is tasked with monitoring or attempting to monitor the commerce of legal drugs. 44 million dollars may seem excessive considering the company did not appear to commit any type of fraud, or conceal their wrongdoing. On the other hand, the company did over $120 billion in sales this past year and also agreed to a similar settlement with the DEA in 2008 over failing to report large shipments of hydrocodone commonly sold as Vicodin. This settlement probably angered some shareholders and cost some people their jobs, but it was merely a ding in their bottom line for 2016.

The other settlement announced by the U.S. Attorney involved a defense contracting company that was hired by the government to provide services at Joint Base Andrews in Prince George’s County. This well known facility is shared by the Marines and the Air Force, and is home to Air Force One. The company was accused of fraudulently submitting inflated invoices to the government for services that were not actually provided or completed in fewer hours than documented. A payment of $4.535 million to the United States ended the investigation into the company, but three former employees are now facing criminal prosecution for their role in the scam. Two of the former employees pled guilty to conspiracy to commit wire fraud and are awaiting sentencing, while the third faces trial later this next month. The federal government awards hundreds of defense contracts to private companies each year and it is nearly impossible to audit every possible job. Uncle Sam is an easy target for these companies because government workers are rarely held accountable for not thoroughly checking their invoices. After all, it’s the taxpayer’s money and not theirs or their company’s money.

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handgun-231699_640-300x169Maryland has some of the toughest gun laws in the country, and concealed carry licenses nearly impossible to obtain. A law abiding citizen basically has to prove that he or she has a legitimate need to carry a gun to even be considered for a carry license, and a large percentage of applications are denied. Many people, especially out of state residents, carry or transport firearms within the state illegally without even knowing it, and others know full well they are breaking the law but do it anyway. Either way, the strict laws on who can carry or transport a firearm and how they must legally do it make simple gun possession an extremely common offense in our state. But the strict laws don’t always mean harsh sentences for defendants. While some jurisdictions place a particularly high level of scrutiny on gun cases, most treat these cases like any other. And there are plenty of pro gun judges that decline handing down sentences that fall in line with the state legislature’s overzealous intent. However, under the current administration the federal government has continued to place an emphasis on vigorously prosecuting gun cases, especially cases involving illegal possession by a convicted felon.

Most people would associate federal criminal prosecutions with charges such as drug trafficking, fraud, money laundering, racketeering, and perhaps white-collar offenses, complex theft schemes, and crimes committed in multiple states. But the U.S. Attorney’s Office in Baltimore City has shown a willingness to get down and dirty in prosecuting simple firearms cases that involve one defendant and one gun. The feds are not too busy to make sure convicted felons possessing guns in Baltimore see the inside of a jail cell, and they know the only way to accomplish this may be to to make sure it’s a federal jail.

Federal prosecutors in Baltimore have been inclined to take cases from city prosecutors, often sending letters offering their services. And when they take a case out of state court it usually means bad news for the defendant. State law provides a fifteen-year maximum penalty for a felon or other disqualified person in possession of a firearm, and if the disqualifying offense was within 5 years then a minimum mandatory prison sentence may apply. Defendants in state court rarely receive anywhere near the maximum jail sentence, and rightly so. In most of these cases the defendant is only disqualified from possessing a firearm due to street level drug offenses that have no business being classified as felonies. But in federal court a defendant in an unlawful gun possession case is far more likely to serve serious prison time, and two recent cases support that contention. The U.S. Attorney’s Office recently announced that a 28-year old Baltimore man was sentenced to 15 years in prison for possessing a loaded .45 caliber handgun. The man never brandished the handgun or used it in the commission of another offense, but rather threw it in an alley as he allegedly ran from city police officers. And just one day before that case another man pled guilty to possession of a stolen gun in the same federal court downtown. This man was also prohibited from possessing a firearm due to previous felony convictions, and is due to be sentenced in the coming months. He too could face a lengthy prison sentence, although it won’t be the 15 years his younger counterpart received. The Blog will continue to follow the federal government’s prosecution of gun possession cases, as we may see a shift when the new administration takes over in January.

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package-1850776_1280-208x300While mall parking lots have been noticeably empty and department store lines practically nonexistent this holiday season, online shopping is as popular as ever. Cyber Monday has basically transformed into cyber November and December as consumers are saving money and time by clicking to buy instead of venturing out in the cold and rain. The benefits of online shopping are undeniable but do come with some downside. There is an increased risk of fraudulent transactions as consumers become less cautious with their credit cards. We used to think twice about buying online, but the suspicion over whom we buy from is all but gone. Consumers buy from all types of online vendors and they do so on public WIFI networks that are susceptible to hacking with a low degree of computer savvy. Another downside of the massive online shopping market is that it has created a new opportunity for thieves to ruin someone’s holiday spirit.

Package theft has become a major issue over the last few years, which is magnified during the holiday season but happens all year around. Just last summer we posted about a two-man crew arrested for stealing packages from doorsteps in Pikesville near the Baltimore City line. Police were tipped off to the Pikesville duo by a neighbor, which resulted in the men being charged with theft and burglary. One of the codefendants is currently serving a 60-day sentence for theft less than $1,000, and the other’s case is still pending.

Fast-forward to this week where we recently learned that Howard County Police recovered nearly 80 packages that were stolen from the doorsteps of homes in various Columbia neighborhoods. Two men from Baltimore were arrested after once again a vigilant homeowner alerted police to suspicious activity in the neighborhood. The caller reportedly witnessed two men driving around in a truck and taking boxes off doorsteps. Less than two minutes after police received the call for service multiple community resource officers arrived on scene, and were joined shortly thereafter by police. A search of the truck revealed a stash of 77 stolen packages with a total value in the thousands. The men, who are both in their mid twenties, were immediately arrested and charged with theft and theft scheme and now await trial in the Ellicott City District Court.