Published on:

baltimore-217620__480-300x199The Governor of Maryland recently introduced a host of forthcoming law enforcement initiatives specifically aimed at reducing violent crime in Baltimore City. Baltimore’s violent crime rate has been trending in the wrong direction for years, and is a constant source of concern for residents, visitors and those who conduct regular business in the city. Putting all the embarrassing national news headlines aside, the bottom line is that people just don’t feel safe in Baltimore.   While the Governor has shown discretion by not outwardly blaming the city’s leadership, it’s clear from his actions that he has no faith the local government can do what it takes to reverse this disturbing trend. The city’s leadership does not even appear to be directly involved with the creation or implementation of these new initiatives, which include the formation of violent crime joint operations center downtown.

The joint operations center will serve as home base for upwards of 200 new law enforcement officers from sixteen agencies and seven law enforcement task forces such as the FBI, DEA, ATF and the U.S. Marshals. The Baltimore Police and the State’s Attoney’s Office will also have a presence in the center, in addition to a special operations unit of the Maryland State Police. With all these new law enforcement officers pounding the pavement there will certainly be hundreds of new cases to prosecute, but if you think the Governor simply planned to hand all these cases over to the local prosecutor then think again. The Governor wants many of these cases to be handled in federal court, and is doing so by expanding the reach of Project Exile, a program where city gun crime offenders are prosecuted in federally. The feds are not footing the entire bill for the increased workload, as the Governor actually pledged state money for the sole purpose of hiring more federal prosecutors to prosecute violent crime in the city. Federal sentencing guidelines are harsher with respect to violent offenses and crimes involving firearms, and the U.S. Attorney’s Office is notorious for high conviction rates. A defendant is far more likely to serve significant prison time in the federal system due to mandatory sentences and no parole.

The governor also announced greater funding for victim and witness relocation programs, which will increase the likelihood that state and federal prosecutors will have their witnesses ready and available when it comes time for trial. Violent crime cases are routinely dismissed due to witness unavailability, and this has become a major issue in Baltimore City for state and federal prosecutors alike. Another announcement from last week was the introduction of the Repeat Firearms Offenders Act of 2019, which will double the minimum mandatory prison sentence from 5 years to 10 for those convicted of felon in possession of a firearm. This law was modified a few years ago to make the mandatory sentence discretionary if the disqualifying crime and any punishment (including probation) ended more than 5 years prior to the new incident date. The effectiveness of mandatory minimum sentences is arguable, but politicians love them so they’re here to stay.

Published on:

home-1331633_960_720-300x267Online shopping has never been more popular, but the convenience can come at a price. Like the old days, the preferred method of delivering a package to a single family home or townhouse is simply to leave it at the front porch. The inherent flaw of placing potentially valuable packages in plain sight of those walking or driving by is outweighed by the cost of repeat delivery attempts for companies like Amazon and UPS, and the unfortunate result is that package theft has become commonplace. We blogged about a string of package thefts in the Pikesville area of Baltimore County a few years ago, but until now this crime of opportunity has largely stayed out of the news. Last month a package theft in Harford County made national headlines, but not for the reasons you might think.

On November 30th a five-year old girl was caught on camera taking a package from the front porch of another person’s Abingdon home, and the video quickly spread throughout the country. As you might expect, the girl appeared to be looking off to her side at someone for direction, and this someone was revealed less than 2 weeks later after an anonymous tipster identified the young girl. Police filed charging documents for a 46-year old Baltimore man on December 14 and a warrant was issued for his arrest that same day. There are currently four charges including theft, conspiracy to commit theft and 4th degree burglary. The defendant was also charged under the Courts and Judicial Proceedings Article for contributing to certain conditions of a child, which makes it a crime to encourage a child to commit an illegal act. This offense carries a 3-year maximum penalty and a $2,500 fine.

Fourth degree burglary is charged when a suspect either breaks and enters a dwelling (home) or store, or is alleged to have entered the yard or garden of a dwelling with the intent to commit a theft, like in this case. This is the only misdemeanor burglary offense, and it carries a 3-year maximum penalty. First, second and third degree burglary are all felonies with maximum punishments ranging from 10 years to 25 years if violence is involved. The suspect in this case was charged with theft less than $100 because the package he stole contained a pair of boots valued around $90. This offense carries a 90-day maximum sentence, as does conspiracy to commit theft less than $100. The conspiracy charge is peculiar from a legal standpoint, as the State would basically be saying the defendant conspired with a 5-year old. This charge will almost certainly be dropped by the State.

Published on:

police-224426__180Almost one year ago the Baltimore Police Department welcomed a new commissioner with high hopes he would be the one best suited to reverse the rising crime rate and restore the department’s reputation in the community. The department had become a nationwide embarrassment after numerous officers were convicted in severe cases of corruption, which included the armed robbery of citizens. There were also lingering allegations that the department unjustly targeted minority suspects, and also ignored service calls in the city’s most dangerous areas. At the time the Mayor was convinced her candidate for commissioner could begin to repair all the damage, but this vision came to an abrupt end four months later after the former top cop resigned amidst federal tax evasion charges. Recently the ex-commissioner pled guilty to those charges in a federal courthouse just a few blocks away from his former office atop police headquarters.

According to the Department of Justice the former commissioner pled guilty to three counts of failing to file individual federal tax returns in 2013, 2014 and 2015. Pursuant to the plea agreement the ex-cop also admitted to substantially reducing the amount of taxes withheld from his salary each year by claiming extra allowances and deductions. He went as far as claiming mortgage interest deductions and deductions for local property taxes when he didn’t actually have a mortgage or own any real property. He claimed business losses without owning any businesses, which all served to reduce the amount of taxes owed to the IRS and the State of Maryland. Additionally, the defendant did not file his 2011 and 2012 tax returns until 2014, and cooked the books when he did file in order to unlawfully save money. The former commissioner’s tax issues cost him his job back in May, and now they may cost him his freedom come March when the case is set for sentencing. Each of these charges carries a $100,000 fine and up to one year in prison. There will also be $67,587.72 in restitution that must be paid to the federal and state governments.

As a first time offender the former top cop will is unlikely to face a lengthy jail sentence for these misdemeanor offenses. On the other hand the judge will balk at any argument that the defendant simply “made a mistake” as the Mayor once characterized it. This was an ongoing course of conduct, and the continuous misrepresentations showed a certain degree of knowledge and intent. If the conduct was believed to have been a mistake or even straight ignorance the U.S. Attorney’s Office probably wouldn’t have charged the former police officer in criminal court. And even if the feds brought charges, if not for the recurring misrepresentations federal prosecutors likely would have entertained some sort of deferred prosecution agreement instead of going after three convictions.

Published on:

prison-300x201Maryland is notorious in the region for its harsh gun laws, but overall has a fairly liberal criminal justice system compared with other states and especially the federal government. Two years ago Annapolis lawmakers passed sweeping criminal justice reform that eliminated most mandatory prison sentences for drug crimes and lowered the maximum penalties for dozens of offenses. The Judicial Reinvestment Act will save the state millions of dollars by significantly reducing the prison population, and a good chunk of these savings will be invested toward treatment and reentry programs. Not all defendants in Maryland have been able to reap the benefits of the JRA though, as it does not apply to federal cases. To the contrary, federal defendants continue to face harsh penalties for non-violent drug crimes, and often even sympathetic judges have their hands tied at sentencing. As a result federal prisons are filled with inmates serving archaic mandatory sentences, but finally lawmakers have decided to do something about it.

The First Step Act recently passed by a wide margin in the U.S. Senate, and is expected to be signed into law fairly soon. While not as powerful as the JRA, the First Step Act is expected to significantly lower the federal prison population and allow judges more discretion by eliminating or reducing some mandatory sentences. It will also redirect money once spent on keeping defendants behind bars to establishing rehabilitation programs to prevent recidivism. The federal strikes laws are responsible for some of the most unjust prison sentences in the entire country, as a three-time drug offender faces mandatory life in prison upon conviction. While the strikes laws won’t be entirely scrapped, the Act will reduce the mandatory penalty from life to 25 years for a third strike and from 20 years to 15 years for a second strike.

The Act will also provide more opportunities for inmates to earn good behavior credit to reduce their stay, and allow offenders serving time for distribution crack cocaine to petition the court for sentence modifications. In 2010 the federal laws regarding crack were changed to mirror powder cocaine laws, but defendants convicted prior to 2010 were not permitted to take advantage of these changes retroactively until now. This provision alone could result in the imminent release of hundreds of prisoners that have been unfairly serving lengthy sentences. There are currently around 2,600 inmates serving time under the old crack cocaine law that was a shameful product of the war on drugs. The First Step Act is estimated to reduce the federal inmate population by around 50,000 over the coming years. This is a huge number considering there are currently around 200,000 federal prisoners, which translates to about 10 percent of the total U.S. prison population.

Published on:

drink-driving-808790__340-300x200Holiday DUI patrols have been operational in Maryland for years, but until recently many of these enhanced law enforcement efforts have taken place on the Eastern Shore during the summer months. Memorial Day and Labor Day weekends along with July 4th have traditionally drawn the most attention of various police departments including the State Police. These law enforcement agencies run DUI checkpoints and deploy extra patrol officers during the nighttime hours in an effort to deter drunk driving and enforce the laws when the message doesn’t register. When a special holiday task force is operational it typically produces a greater number of arrests that a normal weekend, but this is expected as more law enforcement resources are in use. Before we begin a cost benefit analysis of drunk driving task forces, we’ll stop and say the purpose of this post is simply to point out that they are becoming more common throughout the state and coming to a county near you this holiday season.

Various law enforcement agencies in Montgomery County are about to begin their fifth weekend of the local DUI holiday task force, which has already produced close to 200 drunk driving arrests. This particular task force is made up of officers from the state and county police and the local police departments of Rockville, Gaithersburg and Takoma Park. Officers from the Maryland National Capital Park Police are also participating in the task force on the stretches of Montgomery County highway that are within the jurisdiction of federal law enforcement such as the Clara Barton Parkway. These agencies are not limiting their activity to standard proactive road patrols, rather they are also running sobriety checkpoints and compliance checks of local business that sell alcohol. Additionally law enforcement has also taken a more aggressive stance in issuing citations to adults that have allowed minors to consume alcohol on their property. Under Alex and Calvin’s law (section 10-119 of the criminal law code) adults who host parties where alcohol is served to minors face fines of up to $2,500 for a first offense and $5,000 for a second or subsequent offense. These citations are not considered criminal, but failure to pay could result in a criminal contempt charge that carries jail time. Additionally a conviction for one of these civil citations could become part of the permanent court record, which could lead to adverse consequences for the defendant.

Drunk driving has been an especially contentious issue in Montgomery County for the last few years, and for good reason. In 2015 a young law enforcement officer was killed by a repeat DUI offender, which led to the state enacting a law requiring installation of the interlock device for offenders. The engine interlock device is viewed as one of the most effective means to curtail impaired driving by lawmakers, prosecutors and judges alike. The device also spares defendants the possibility of losing their ability to drive, which in Maryland can be crippling due to the shortcomings of public transportation. The obvious downsides of the device are the high cost, frequent malfunctioning and embarrassing look, but most would agree that it’s worth it to be able to drive legally. The Montgomery County task force will continue to operate until January 5, 2019 and the Blog may post a follow up article after the final data on the program is released. If you or a loved one has been charged or arrested for any traffic offense in Maryland feel free to contact DUI lawyer Benjamin Herbst anytime for a free consultation. Benjamin specializes in representing out of state defendants, repeat offenders and drivers charged with federal DUI by the Park Police and other federal law enforcement agencies.

Published on:

pot-300x225Just one year ago dozens of medical marijuana patients lined up outside a Montgomery County dispensary to make the first legal pot purchases in Maryland. This past Saturday marked the official one-year anniversary of those historic medical cannabis sales, and business is now booming for the industry. The Maryland Medical Cannabis Commission or MMCC originally estimated first year sales to total $46 million, but now it looks like their prediction was off by a wide margin. After posting modest revenue of $1.8 million in the launch month last year, revenues then increased dramatically each month thereafter. January produced $2.6 million in revenue, February jumped to $3.8 million, and March to $5.5 million. This August and September both produced total revenues over $10 million and the numbers continue to climb. At this point it is a not so conservative estimate that sales for 2018 will top $100 million, more than twice the number thrown out by the MMCC.

The revenue prediction from the MMCC was hardly a guess and likely based on data such as polling of potential patients and comparing revenues from other states. Though regardless of their scientific approach it’s easy to see how the state drastically underestimated the power of its own program. Most people just don’t want to talk about their marijuana use to those outside their close circle of friends, and they especially don’t want to discuss it with the government. Unfair as it is, there is still a major negative stigma attached to marijuana that alcohol has managed to avoid. In America it’s still perfectly acceptable to have a few beers after work, but take a puff or two and all the sudden you are a drug user. Numerous private companies and government agencies have drug polices that prohibit marijuana use, and a soldier can easily be kicked out of the military for casual consumption. While half the states have legalized medical cannabis, the professional world hasn’t caught up, thus it’s still not completely acceptable to use this natural product with medicinal value. Patients and social users still have much to lose by talking freely about their use.

Other reasons for the staggering revenue reports have to do with geography, as Maryland is surrounded by states to the south that have not yet fully embraced the medicinal value of cannabis, and will likely be some of the last to allow legal use. Virginia and North Carolina technically have medical marijuana programs, but access is more difficult and may be limited to CBD and low THC products. Maryland allows out of state residents to obtain a license and make purchases, and the process is not difficult or expensive. In addition to physicians, nurse practitioners, dentists and other professionals have the authority to prescribe medical cannabis and many do not require lengthy and comprehensive evaluations. The state has made it quite simple to obtain approval to purchase.

Published on:

package-1850776_1280-208x300A former letter carrier for the United States Postal Service was recently sentenced in federal court for his role in a drug conspiracy that spanned from the West Coast to Bethesda, Maryland. The 49-year old postman received a sentence of 4 years in prison followed by 3 years of supervised probation for the crimes of conspiracy to distribute and possession with intent to distribute cocaine. In total the feds linked the former USPS employee to 5 kilograms of cocaine, which according to law enforcement has a total street value of approximately $187,600.

According to the guilty plea that the court accepted a few months prior the ex-postal worker conspired with business associates on the West Coast to send multiple packages containing cocaine from California and Nevada to Maryland. The packages were shipped via U.S. mail and destined for addresses on the defendant’s Montgomery County mailing route. This investigation began back in September of 2016 though federal law enforcement seems to believe it had gone on longer. In April of 2017 a postal inspection service drug detection dog made a positive hit on five packages that were yet to be delivered, and the inspectors sought and received a search warrant. Upon opening the packages the inspectors discovered that all five contained one kilogram of cocaine packaged in the same manner. The addresses were valid Bethesda locations, but the names associated with the addresses were fake.

While the U.S. Attorney’s press release does not detail what occurred after cocaine was discovered, the packages were probably sealed back up and placed in circulation for the defendant to deliver. Only this time odds were the former postal worker had unwanted company following him along his route. Montgomery County police assisted the feds in this investigation, and they could have been involved in either a pretextual traffic stop of the defendant or a probable cause arrest. Law enforcement likely waited until the defendant took some sort of action indicating he had knowledge of the contents of each package before making an arrest. During his plea hearing the former mailman admitted that he took possession of the packages in the Bethesda post office and then notified his co-conspirators by text that he had marked the packages as delivered. After scanning the packages in he delivered them to the co-conspirators at different locations than the addresses written on the packages.

Published on:

money-1428594__480-300x200Over the course of six years as Chief Operating Officer of the Department of Development for Montgomery County a 59-year old Germantown man embezzled close to $7 million of taxpayer money, and last week he plead guilty to some of his crimes. The recent guilty plea to wire fraud and making false statements on his tax returns took place in the Greenbelt federal courthouse. Sentencing is set for February of next year, and he faces up to 20 years in prison for the wire fraud count and 3 years in prison for lying on his tax returns. According to the U.S. Attorney’s Office the defendant must also plead guilty in the Circuit Court for Montgomery County to state criminal charges of felony theft scheme and misconduct in office. Finally, the convicted public official has a pending civil action against him that is scheduled for settlement conference the day before his federal sentencing hearing in Greenbelt.

Pursuant to the plea agreement the former employee admitted that from 2010 to 2016 he unlawfully authorized payments totaling $6.7 million from the Montgomery County government to the bank accounts of fraudulent business entities he created. The payments were in the form of checks mailed to the addresses of the scam businesses and direct deposits sent to bank accounts he controlled. One of the fake LLCs even listed his home address as the main office.   On top of stealing millions of dollars the federal government also prosecuted for failing to report any of the income on his tax returns, which resulted in $2.3 million in back taxes due to the IRS. As if this wasn’t enough the plea also required an admission to lying on his county financial disclosures by failing to reveal his interest in one of the fraudulent entities that was receiving government money. Government officials with the authority to spend public money are generally required to disclose their business ventures to prevent impropriety or the appearance of it, but this defendant was way past that point.

This case brings up an interesting issue that we have touched on in the past regarding the crossover of state and federal prosecution. You’ll notice that the former county official did not plead guilty to theft in federal court because he did not steal federal property, and there is no general catchall theft statute in the federal code. The feds commonly use wire fraud and tax evasion laws to prosecute activity related to theft and embezzlement, and in many cases these convictions would be enough to satisfy the state that justice has been served. But is seems in this case Montgomery County felt it wasn’t enough just to have their former employee found guilty of federal charges, as they appear to want their pound of flesh as well. Theft scheme over $100,000 is a felony under Maryland law with a maximum penalty of 20 years in jail, and misconduct in office is a common law crime with a maximum penalty subject only to limitations imposed by the 8th Amendment. The county could theoretically seek a consecutive state sentence for the defendant but this is unlikely. It is more likely that a state prison sentence would be suspended in order to assure that restitution payments are completed to the best of the defendant’s ability.

Published on:

graphics-882726_640-300x207The last of 16 former Maryland correctional officers involved in a large-scale prison corruption scheme was sentenced recently in the Baltimore federal courthouse. The 28-year old female officer originally from Texas was sentenced to six years in prison followed by three years of probation for her role in a contraband smuggling scandal at the state’s largest prison facility. Eastern Correctional Institute or ECI is a medium security facility in Somerset County on the Eastern Shore that houses over 3,000 male inmates. For years inmates and numerous staff members conspired to smuggle contraband such as drugs, cell phones and tobacco into the facility using complex organized methods designed to thwart detection. The scam eventually became too large to keep secret, and was shut down in 2016 after 80 different defendants were charged. Federal prosecutors ended up securing convictions in 77 out of the 80 cases.

While most defendants entered into plea agreements with the government, this defendant elected to take her case to jury trial, and was ultimately found guilty of racketeering, money laundering and drug conspiracy after nine days in court. Evidence presented by the government revealed that the former corrections officer conspired with her sister and other associates to smuggle packages of contraband into ECI for distribution to inmates. The contraband referenced in this particular case included drugs such as Suboxone and synthetic marijuana, phones, tobacco and pornography. Contraband was packaged in various ways including hidden within feminine hygiene products. The packages were placed in strategic locations such as staff bathrooms, interior offices and dining areas to avoid suspicious hand-to-hand transactions. Using this “dead drop” method, the smuggler and the purchaser never actually had to meet in person.

According to the government smugglers were paid roughly $500 each time they successfully delivered a package to an inmate and this defendant was no different. She was apparently paid via PayPal by inmates using the very same cell phones that were once smuggled into the prison. The contraband cell phones also provided a constant means of communication with inmates to arrange future transactions. While the phones allowed the smuggling operation to flourish they also came back to bite the co-conspirators. Federal law enforcement intercepted inclulpatory text messages between this defendant, her accomplices and the inmate customers, which referenced the type of contraband, the method of packaging, the location of the drops and of course the price. Numerous law enforcement agencies were involved in this massive investigation including the FBI, U.S. Postal Inspection Service, Maryland State Police and the Baltimore Police.

Published on:

money-943782_960_720-300x225Undercover law enforcement officers are often placed in dangerous situations with unpredictable people, but it’s hard to imagine an officer waking up expecting to be a victim of an armed robbery during work. This is exactly what happened recently in Baltimore, as two undercover ATF agents sought to make a controlled narcotics purchase and instead ended up looking down the barrel of a .44 caliber revolver. The evening began with the two agents and a confidential informant arranging to purchase $2,000 worth of heroin from a known dealer. The agents and the CI picked up the known dealer and then traveled to meet to meet the dealer’s supplier in West Baltimore. Upon arriving the dealer exited the car and told the other three occupants to say put. As soon as the dealer was out of sight two suspicious men approached the car brandishing handguns and demanding money. The undercovers told the men there was cash in the car, and during this brief exchange a secret takedown signal was relayed to a team of covert backup agents.

The supporting ATF agents stormed on scene and ordered the two robbers to drop their weapons and put their hands in the air, but instead they both took off running. After a quick pursuit both suspects were placed in custody, though one was actually shot by the ATF as he attempted to flea. Only one of the guns was recovered, but as part of the plea agreement both men admitted that there were two guns involved in the attempted robbery. The latest defendant to plea guilty was convicted of assault on a federal officer and brandishing a firearm in the course of a crime of violence. This 33-year old defendant faces between 7 and 15 years in federal prison followed by supervised release. The second defendant entered his plea the week before, and both are scheduled to be sentenced in March in the Baltimore federal courthouse.

Although both defendants admitted they had no idea their victims were federal agents, there is no element of knowledge for the crime of assault on a federal law enforcement officer in the U.S. code. The government is only required to prove beyond a reasonable doubt that the victim was in fact a federal officer acting in the course of his or her duties. This is different than some jurisdictions that require that the defendant knew or should have known the victim was a law enforcement officer. Law enforcement officers are generally afforded an additional layer of protection against assault through enhanced penalties, and the federal system is no exception. While simple assault on a federal agent is punishable by 1 year in prison, if the assault took place during the course of a felony the maximum becomes 8 years. There is no element of injury required for this offense, so in this case an attempted robbery with no actual physical contact was more than enough to satisfy the elements of the crime.