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joint-200x300Maryland’s highest court recently ruled that law enforcement officers are no longer permitted to search a person who is in possession of less than 10 grams of marijuana. The case came to the Court of Appeals after a Silver Spring man was arrested for possession of cocaine with intent to distribute, and later pled guilty to this charge in the Montgomery County Circuit Court. The guilty plea was entered conditionally pursuant to the Maryland rules, which allows a defendant to withdraw his or her plea if an appeal is successful down in road. In this case the defendant argued the search of his person was illegal and moved to have the cocaine suppressed, but the circuit court judge did not agree and the Court of Special Appeals, Maryland’s intermediate appeals court in Annapolis, didn’t buy the argument either. Both lower courts sided with the state that the search of the defendant was incident to a lawful arrest, and in doing so relied upon case law from the days before possession of marijuana under 10 grams became decriminalized.

The crux of the defendant’s motion was logically sound, but the case law just wasn’t’ there for the defendant’s attorney to make a bulletproof argument. The defendant argued that Montgomery County police officers did not have probable cause to search the his person based on their observation of a half smoked joint in his car. The officers testified that all they smelled was the odor of burnt marijuana and all they saw was the joint, and they not offer any evidence that led them to believe there was more than 10 grams of marijuana in the car.  Possession of less than 10 grams has been classified as a non-arrestable civil infraction for the last few years. The Supreme Court has long held that you cannot have a valid search incident to arrest if you don’t have a valid arrest in the first place, and this is exactly what transpired. In fact, one officer testified the defendant was arrested for possession of cocaine, but also agreed that he did not find the cocaine until the defendant was placed under arrest. Given the unequivocal testimony of the state’s witnesses it is somewhat surprising that the two lower courts did not side with the defendant, but again, the Maryland case law was not there yet.

The Court of Appeals reminded us that the police officers still maintain the lawful ability to search the defendant’s car regardless of whether officers believe a criminal act is in progress. Marijuana might be decriminalized, but it’s still illegal to possess in any amount without a medical use card, and as such is classified as contraband. The automobile exception has long since limited the amount of privacy we have in our cars, especially while in a public parking lot. If police observe a person with contraband in a car they will almost always perform a search, as this is how many larger drug and gun cases begin. Had the cocaine been anywhere in the defendant’s car the search, arrest and conviction would have been valid and upheld, but the fact that it was in his pocket made all the difference in the world. The defendant in this case received a felony conviction and a partially suspended sentence, but now the high court’s ruling will reverse the conviction. The defendant may have already served his sentence, but the bigger picture is the establishment of a clear rule that a suspect may not be searched based on the observance of a non-criminal amount of marijuana.

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crime-tape-300x208Last week an armed man dressed in black and wearing sunglasses and a hat walked into an Eldersburg Walmart and demanded money from a cashier. The store employee complied and the armed robber fled the scene in a Chevy sedan without incident. The robbery occurred shortly after 7 in the morning on a Friday, and coincidentally law enforcement officers were about to start patrolling that same shopping center at 8 a.m. The entire incident lasted no more than a couple of minutes, and appeared to be unrelated to any previous robbery, but it left a sour taste in mouth of the top local law enforcement officer in Carroll County. The Sheriff of Carroll County went on record to publicly bash the big box store’s security, or lack thereof. He stated that company policies are not aimed at stopping crime in the stores, but rather holding it to an acceptable level. The sheriff described this policy as reactive rather than proactive, and even went so far as to say the company’s hands off approach breeds criminal activity not just in Eldersburg, but at other locations in Mount Airy, Hampstead and Westminster. The additional criminal activity has allegedly placed a greater strain on law enforcement compared to other businesses, which are better equipped to handle their own security.

Armed robberies at big box stores such as Walmart, Target, Costco and Home Depot are not common, and even the sheriff admitted that he hadn’t recalled specifically whether one had occurred in the last five years in Carroll County. But armed robbery is not the only type of crime that draws law enforcement resources away form other tasks. Even minor offenses such as shoplifting and other types of thefts typically require the presence of law enforcement officers in order to initiate charges. In a typical shoplifting case the loss prevention officer or LPO will stop and detain the suspect and then call the police to make an arrest or issue a charging document. The whole process could take more than an hour, and if police are tied up issuing citations or statements of charges for shoplifting cases then they can’t be out on the road ready to respond to emergencies. The disdain for the largest big box retainer in the country is likely rooted in an abundance of calls to service for minor offenses rather than a major crime like armed robbery.

The company insists it places customer safety as their ultimate priority, but law enforcement officers are not so convinced. Unlike many other retailers there are no uniformed security officers in Walmart (armed or unarmed) and loss prevention officers are typically in plain clothes or out of sight, which limits their deterrence factor. The company has spent millions on limiting the amount of product loss due to shoplifting and employee theft by hiring greeters at entrances and receipt checkers at the exists, but these measures are not really aimed at protecting the customers. Big box stores attract hundreds of people at a time, and these days any large gathering of people can be seen as a target. The sheriff is concerned that spaces with large crowds should be protected by security at all times, not just when officers are assigned to do a routine patrol. The concern is certainly valid, and there will probably be a time when all big box stores have their own uniformed security guards. These mammoth stores are almost like their own shopping malls and you rarely, if ever, come across a mall without its own security.

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money-943782_960_720-300x225The United States Attorney’s Office for the District of Maryland recently announced the results of several federal law enforcement efforts aimed at targeting the most violent neighborhoods in Baltimore City. In the last month alone law enforcement closed investigations that resulted in the arrest of 90 defendants on serious federal crimes such as drug distribution and possession of a firearm in the furtherance of a crime. Multiple law enforcement agencies including the FBI, ATF, DEA, Homeland Security and the Baltimore Police Department participated in the investigations, which in addition to the 90 arrests yielded 51 firearms, almost $1 million in cash and kilogram amounts of drugs. The controlled substances seized were fentanyl, heroin, cocaine and marijuana, which are the most common street drugs of the times.

According to this release federal law enforcement separated their investigations by neighborhoods or territories. Police targeted a certain section of the city that includes a couple blocks or street corners, which they likely identified by following the buyers. Once they had the area in their sights law enforcement set up shop and began gathering evidence they ultimately needed to bring to federal prosecutors and then the grand jury. In this past release the U.S. Attorney’s Office revealed the investigations into four separate locations across the city. The first investigation in East Baltimore produced 25 arrests in total, with 10 being charged with illegal firearm possession by a prohibited person. A person can be prohibited for a number of reasons including prior felony convictions or even prior misdemeanor convictions. A separate West Baltimore investigation produced six drug distribution and firearm arrests, including one charge for possession of an illegal fully automatic firearm. In Southwest Baltimore another 38 defendants were charged for their involvement in a drug trafficking ring that had ties to Virginia, Pennsylvania and West Virginia. Finally, a Northwest Baltimore investigation produced 21 arrests for distribution of fentanyl and crack cocaine, and possession of firearms.

Each of these individual investigations falls under the umbrella initiative called Project Safe Neighborhoods or PSN, which is the federal government’s key crime reduction component in Baltimore. In the first half of 2019 the feds indicted 215 defendants compared to a total of 246 in the entire year of 2018. The U.S. Attorney’s Office anticipates this trend will continue and that they will charge 50% more defendants with violent crimes this year than in 2018. The top law enforcement officer in Maryland has stated repeatedly that reducing violent crime in Baltimore is priority number one, and if so the work will have to continue for years. The governor and the even the president have not been shy about their feelings about Baltimore, and this pressure is definitely felt by the law enforcement community in the city. The only way to appease the politicians and the public is to make arrests and secure convictions, but sometimes those that are not responsible for the violence become scapegoats for the actions of others.

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drink-driving-808790__340-300x200A former Washington County Circuit Court judge recently pled guilty to DUI and was sentenced to 30 days in jail at a recent court appearance in Frederick County. The judge is no stranger to appearing as a defendant, as he was also charged with DUI back in 2009. In the 2009 case the judge pled guilty and was sentenced to supervised probation, a sentence that was modified two years later to PBJ. The facts of the 2009 case were quite alarming, as the former judge was driving with a BAC of .18, more than twice the legal limit and considerably higher than the .15 threshold for enhanced penalties. In this case the judge sideswiped another vehicle at an intersection and injured the driver, and there was also a 3-year old passenger in the vehicle that luckily was uninjured. Needless to say when the judge appeared as a defendant for a second time last week he faced an uphill battle to avoid a jail sentence.

The defense likely requested a probation sentence, but this request fell on deaf ears. Instead of probation the former judge was immediately taken into custody to begin serving his month long sentence in the Frederick County Detention Center. An appeal to the circuit court was filed the same day, but the former judge remains in custody and will serve out the rest of his sentence after release was denied at his bail review hearing a week later. The former judge was not granted the benefit of probation before judgment, which means he will receive 12 points on his drivers license. He may face suspension or revocation unless a Frederick County Circuit Court judge decides to grant PBJ at his next court appearance in August, or down the road with a modification of sentence motion.

All district court judgments are subject to appeal in the circuit court, where the case starts over as if nothing ever happened. This de novo appeal process comes with a catch though; if a defendant is sentenced to jail or probation in the district court he or she will have to begin serving that sentence unless the judge specifically states the sentence will be stayed or continued. In cases where the defendant is jailed, there may be the possibility of posting a bail while the appeal is pending if the sentencing judge grants an appeal bond. The other option is to request a bail from the circuit court, which in this case proved unsuccessful.

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street-2701004_1280-300x114A 34-year old Prince George’s County man was recently arrested for vandalizing five cars and taking property from at least three of them. The county police reported the arrest, and stated the defendant may be linked to vandalizing as many as 18 cars in a single 24-hour period. He is currently being held at the Prince George’s County detention center after a district court judge denied his release at a bail review hearing. Maryland judiciary case search lists the man as residing in Upper Marlboro, but this address may not have been current, which could have been a reason why he was denied bail. It also seems as if the defendant has been on the run for quite some time, as a violation of probation warrant was issued for his arrest back in 2010 in a Charles County case. He was on probation for felony first-degree burglary, and was given a 20-year suspended sentence with 5 years of probation in 2008. There are no other Maryland convictions in the man’s past, but he has been charged numerous times with crimes in PG County. All cases, including charges for arson, burglary, rouge and vagabond and theft) appear to have all been nolle prossed (dismissed by the state), leaving the Charles County case as his only prior conviction.

While this case may be confusing at first glance, it is important to realize that the defendant was not arrested for actually stealing the cars, but for stealing items out of the cars. The traditional legal term for breaking into cars is rouge and vagabond, but when items are actually stolen the police will charge the suspect with theft, and malicious destruction of property if there was damage to the car. Rogue and vagabond is essentially the Maryland version of burglary of a motor vehicle. The Maryland burglary laws only apply directly to breaking and entering homes (dwellings) and stores, and the yards or gardens of each. While rogue and vagabond is a misdemeanor that carries a 3-year maximum penalty, the penalty for stealing from a vehicle depends on what was actually stolen, and the amount of damage the person caused when breaking in to the vehicle.

Malicious destruction of property is always a misdemeanor, and carries a maximum penalty of 60 days in jail if the value of the damage caused was under $1,000, and 3 years in jail if the damage was over $1,000. Theft on the other hand can be a felony if the amount of the goods stolen exceeds $1,500. If the theft occurred over multiple days the state can charge based on the total amount of the entire theft scheme. The punishments for theft in Maryland were recently reduced by the Justice Reinvestment Act or JRA, and now the longest sentence for misdemeanor theft is 6 months as opposed to 18 months under the old law. The punishment for felony theft starts at 5 years and can go all the way up to 20 years for theft over $100,000.

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the-sea-1252182__480-300x200Nine recreational boaters were arrested for operating a vessel under the influence during the July 4th weekend according to the Maryland Natural Resources Police. The Natural Resources Police or NRP is the enforcement arm the Department of Natural Resources or DNR, and among other duties is responsible for patrolling the state’s hundreds of navigable waterways. They are especially busy during the summer months, with July 4th and Labor Day being perhaps the single two busiest days on the water each year. The main duty of NRP officers during these heightened times is to keep boat operators and their passengers safe out on the water, and boat safety checks are one of the most effective ways to achieve this goal. NRP officers conducted close to 2,000 safety checks over the holiday weekend and issued almost 700 citations for violations of the State Boat Act, which is part of the Waters section of the Natural Resources code.

If you are operating a vessel on a Maryland waterway during a holiday weekend there is a good chance you will be approached by an NRP officer for a safety check. Unlike a traffic stop on state roadways, boating officers do not need reasonable suspicion to approach a vessel to conduct a safety check. NRP officers can make close contact with vessel operators and their passengers at basically any time, and this contact can quickly turn into a criminal investigation.

During boat safety checks the officers will make sure the required safety equipment is present and that the number of occupants does not exceed Coast Guard limits, but the officers are always on the lookout for the possibility of drug use or an impaired operator. If an officer suspects that the operator is under the influence he or she may request the operator to submit to field sobriety exercises and a breath test similar to what occurs during a DUI investigation out on the road. A boat operator is not required to submit to a breath test unless there is an accident involving death or serious injury, but refusing could trigger a one-year suspension of operating privileges. The penalties for operating a vessel under the influence of alcohol or drugs are basically the same as the penalties for drunk driving. Boating under the influence of alcohol carries a 1-year maximum jail sentence and a $1,000 fine, while boating while impaired carries a 60-day jail sentence and a $500 fine. These citations are often accompanied by charges for operating a vessel in a reckless or dangerous manner. Unlike its traffic counterpart in the transportation code, under the Maryland boat law operating a vessel in a reckless or dangerous manner carries a potential 30-day jail sentence for a first offense and a 60-day sentence for a subsequent offense. These citations are criminal must appear citations, and failure to appear could trigger an arrest warrant. While a conviction for operating a vessel under the influence or reckless operation could result in a criminal record, they do not trigger driver’s license suspensions.

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money-943782_960_720-300x225The U.S. Attorney’s Office for the District of Maryland recently announced that a federal jury came back with guilty verdicts for two Washington D.C. men charged with committing armed robberies in Prince George’s County. The verdict came after seven days of trial at the U.S. District Court in Greenbelt. According to evidence presented by the government at trial the two men robbed an auto repair business in Clinton, Maryland back in November of 2016, and then just four days later robbed a barbershop close to the D.C. line in Seat Pleasant. During the first robbery the men entered the shop brandishing firearms and ordered the two employees to the ground and stole their money. One employee was bound with zip ties while the other fought back and was shot. The shooting victim was severely injured and according to the government is now paralyzed. After committing the auto repair shop robbery the co-defendants fled in a stolen car and were not captured.

Four days later the same two co-defendants committed another armed robbery in nearby Seat Pleasant, and this time it didn’t end so well for the pair and their unidentified getaway driver. After robbing patrons at a barbershop in a similar manner as the auto repair shop, the co-defendants fled in a stolen minivan. Only this time, police spotted the getaway car at an intersection and attempted to make a stop. The three robbers tried to flee from police and bailed out of the van to attempt to run away on foot, but two were captured almost immediately and other was captured a short time later. Upon searching the stolen van police recovered two loaded 9 mm handguns, one of which had an obliterated serial number.

While one of the defendants was awaiting trial in jail he apparently urged multiple acquaintances to visit the barbershop and dissuade witnesses from testifying. These conversations were recorded and introduced into evidence by the government, which led to a conviction for witness tampering in addition to multiple other convictions including armed robbery, use of a firearm in a crime of violence and possession of a firearm by a convicted felon. Inmates that are incarcerated pending trial often make the mistake of assuming their jailhouse conversations are private, when in fact the government is always listening. These conversations are admissible in court, and are frequently used to convict defendants in cases where other evidence may be lacking. Defendants and their families should conduct their conversations as if the prosecutor or law enforcement were right there in the room, as there is no reasonable expectation of privacy in jail.

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marijuana-1281540_1280-300x225While legalizing marijuana has been discussed in previous legislative sessions, a legitimate proposal has yet to gain steam in Annapolis. Recreational marijuana will be legalized in Maryland within the next few years one way or another, but the state will move at its own pace. Based off the medical program that pace can be described as deliberate, or just plain slow. In order for legalization to actually have a legitimate shot of becoming law in 2020 the momentum has to start building soon, and it appears the ball has already started rolling. This past week a group of Maryland lawmakers conducted their first meetings as members of the marijuana legalization task force, which is a major sign that legalization has a legitimate shot of passing next year. This is not the first time a task force has been convened to address state marijuana policy, but this year it seems the sole focus is on legalization.

The bi-partisan task force is made up of state senators and delegates, and is expected to make formal recommendations by the end of the calendar year, which will be used to shape legislation when the 2020 session opens in January. Members will divide up into subcommittees that will focus on a variety of issues such as the impact on the criminal justice system, potential tax rates, licensing requirements and the impact on public health. Lawmakers will also seek the advice of outside experts with respect to issues such as the conflict between state legalization and federal laws that still consider marijuana to be a controlled substance.

This being a criminal law Blog, we’ll take a minute to comment on the criminal justice impacts that legalization could produce. The most obvious impact would be that criminal cases for possession of marijuana would likely cease to exist, with the exception being possession by minors and adults under the age of 21. Lawmakers would have to address whether possession by an underage person would be a civil infraction like with alcohol, or a criminal infraction. New regulations on the on the amount of pot a person could possess and where they could possess it would be imposed, but violation of these rules would likely be a civil infraction. Legalization would drastically reduce possession of marijuana with the intent to distribute cases, as the customer base would shrink to those who are unable to purchase at a dispensary, namely those under 21. Finally, charges for manufacturing marijuana (growing at home) would also be drastically reduced, as legalization would likely allow a limited number of plants to be cultivated within the confines of a lawful private residence.

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concertina-wire-1031773_960_720-200x300The U.S. Attorney’s Office recently announced that a convicted narcotics dealer has been sentenced to 12 years in federal prison for his role in the importation and distribution of fentanyl. The 38-year old Wicomico County man will also be placed on 3 years of probation following his release from federal prison. According to his plea agreement law enforcement began investigating the defendant back in the fall of 2017 for his involvement in large-scale drug trafficking ring. Agencies including ICE, Homeland Security and the Maryland State Police eventually learned that defendant used fictitious names and email addresses to purchase fentanyl directly from China, and had the narcotics shipped to locations throughout the Eastern Shore. After it was mixed with various cutting agents, the defendant and his co-conspirators would package and sell the fentanyl in Baltimore and other locations in Maryland. Law enforcement used confidential informants to engage in a series of controlled buys, which yielded detailed information on how the fentanyl should be mixed and sold. At least two of these controlled buys took place in Baltimore City, and within a month police had obtained a search warrant for the defendant’s home in Salisbury.

Execution of the search warrant yielded over 400 grams of fentanyl and close to $20,000 in cash. Police also recovered drug paraphernalia including baggies, scales and a blender. Fortunately for the defendant law enforcement did not recover any firearms in the home, as this would have triggered a series of additional charges. On the other hand, law enforcement did learn that earlier in 2017 a woman had died of a fentanyl overdose in the same home where the search warrant was executed, and that the defendant was present when it happened. As part of his plea the defendant admitted that he had directed the overdose victim to go to the kitchen where the drugs were mixed, and upon cleaning the kitchen the woman had come into contact with a deadly dose of fentanyl. While the defendant was never charged for his role in the death of the woman, it almost certainly played a large part in the plea offer from the government, and the sentence handed down by the judge.

Readers of the Blog are well aware of the federal government’s involvement with Baltimore City gun and gang prosecutions, but guns and gangs are not all the feds are after. Heroin and fentanyl overdose deaths are at a critical level, and any large-scale narcotics trafficking, especially when it involves international shipments and cross state distribution is going to attract the attention of federal law enforcement. The feds will continue to utilize effective tools such as confidential informants and controlled buys in order to take down mid-level dealers, and lengthy prison sentences may await those who are prosecuted. The federal sentencing guidelines are stricter that the Maryland guidelines, and convicted defendants in federal cases are not eligible for parole as they are in Maryland state cases. Federal inmates typically serve over 80 percent of their sentence, while state inmates can be eligible for parole after only serving 25 percent of their time.

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hammer-719066_960_720-300x225Under Maryland law all defendants who are charged with an offense that carries more than 90 days in jail are entitled to a jury trial, but requesting a jury trial and actually going through with one are two entirely different things. Requesting or praying a jury trial occurs when a defendant decides to transfer his or her case from the district court to the circuit court. Almost all criminal cases start out in the district court, but jurors are never summoned to appear in district court and they don’t conduct jury trials. Felony charges (except theft and other exceptions like animal cruelty) must eventually be handled in the circuit court due to jurisdiction rules, but there are countless misdemeanor charges that are handled in district court and provide a jury trial right. Common offenses in this category include second-degree assault, theft (all types over $100), DUI, malicious destruction of property and drug possession. Defendants facing trial in district court for these offenses have the option to stay put or move to the circuit court, and there are conflicting opinions about what the right decision may be.

Circuit court is the higher court and the most serious crimes are handled there, but this should not be a deterrent to defendants who are thinking about requesting a jury trial. Keep in mind that circuit court judges are used to hearing felony cases such as murder, robbery and drug distribution all day, so your misdemeanor case usually won’t seem like the crime of the century in their eyes. Additionally, circuit court prosecutors are more experienced and have a better grasp on the cases where they should ask for a harsh sentence, and the ones where they should take a step back. Generally speaking, if you have a misdemeanor charge or a felony theft charge the judges and prosecutors tend to be more reasonable in circuit court, so it may be beneficial to request a jury trial. In some jurisdictions like Anne Arundel County, Baltimore City and Queen Anne’s County it’s usually a good idea to request a jury trial, and in others it depends on the judge.

Once again, requesting a jury trial and actually going through with a jury trial are two different things. Once the case is in circuit court you will eventually have to decide whether to accept a STET, plead guilty or go to trial with a judge or a jury. As a general rule if the state offers to STET your case (postpone the case indefinitely without a finding of guilt) you should accept. You could always decide to bring the case back and fight it within a year, but usually it’s not worth the gamble if you can guarantee the case will be closed without admitting any type of guilt. Deciding whether to accept a plea is always up to the defendant, but everyone in this position should have a lawyer to consult with before making this important decision. Finally, the last decision if the case can’t be worked out is to decide between a court trial and a jury trial. At a court trial the judge will determine guilt or innocence after hearing the evidence, which basically means the entire trial is in the hands of one person. At a jury trial in Maryland, the state must convince all 12 jurors beyond a reasonable doubt in order for them to come back with a guilty verdict. A good criminal defense lawyer will stress to the jury just how difficult it is to reach the level of proof beyond a reasonable doubt. If the jury is unsure they must acquit, which is something that must be hammered home at all stages of the trial.