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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.

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pills-384846_1280-300x200The governor announced a state of emergency for the opioid crisis in Maryland less than a year ago, but the fight against these deadly drugs has been escalating for over a decade. The battle has become more sophisticated, evolving from going after users and street level dealers to targeting pharmacies, drug wholesalers, pharmaceutical companies and pain management clinics dubbed as “pill mills”. Numerous pharmacies and pain clinics have been shuttered by federal and state law enforcement, and large companies have received hundreds of millions of dollars in fines by the federal government. The Feds have also demonstrated a willingness to go after any individual involved in the legal narcotics trade that is not playing by the rules, which includes doctors making their living by prescribing powerful and addictive opiates. Opinions differ on whether pain clinic doctors should be able to make a living, and a good one, by rubber-stamping narcotic prescriptions after minimal patient contact, but right or wrong this practice is not illegal. Federal investigators know it’s difficult to bust a doc for writing too many prescriptions, though if they look carefully some of these doctors are bound to step over the line in another way. According to the U.S. Attorney’s Office here in Maryland one group of doctors did just that, and along with two medical providers were found guilty of numerous federal crimes.

The U.S. Attorney’s Office for the District of Maryland recently announced guilty verdicts on 26 felony counts against a pain management doctor. The verdict came after a 13-day jury trial in Baltimore City where federal prosecutors successfully proved the doctor’s involvement in two separate criminal schemes. One of the schemes involved the pain management doctor and his partners sending drug testing lab work, which routinely amounted to 1,000 tests per month, to a testing facility in New Jersey in exchange for cash payments. This particular scheme generated over $4 million in revenue over about 5 years from health insurance companies and Medicare. After expenses were subtracted the lab and the doctor’s office split profits that amounted to $1.3 million apiece in illegal proceeds under the federal Anti-Kickback Act. To add insult to injury, the government also proved this particular doctor hid most of the bounty from his own partners. Other allegations proved by the government included overbilling private insurance companies and Medicare for medical procedures including therapeutic nerve blocks. The doctor would routinely enter false billing codes in order to generate more revenue for a single medical procedure.

In addition to the aforementioned Anti-Kickback Act violation, the doctor was also found guilty of violating the Travel Act, commonly known as mail fraud. The use of mail fraud by federal prosecutors in overbilling cases became part of pop culture after appearing in John Grisham’s The Firm, which was made into a big screen legal drama starring Tom Cruise. Other convictions for the shamed doc include health care fraud and falsifying medical records. Health care fraud carries the highest maximum penalty of all the charges at 10 years, followed by mail fraud and the Anti-Kickback Act, which carry 5-year maximum jail sentences. Sentencing will occur at a later date, and the doctor will likely be handed a split sentence that includes some jail time followed by supervised probation. It is not out of the question that the doctor will be forced to pay a seven-figure criminal restitution amount as well. The doctor and one of his partners are still facing charges of conspiracy to defraud the IRS, though after the result in this case a plea may be on the horizon. The Blog will continue to follow this case and may post an article after sentencing. If you have been charged or are being investigated for any criminal charges including federal fraud allegations, doctor shopping or possessing a fraudulent prescription contact Benjamin Herbst at 410-207-2598 for a free consultation.

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marijuana-1281540_1280-300x225Medical marijuana grow facilities across Maryland have been up and running for weeks, yet as of now these growers are still not able to sell their product to the distributors that will ultimately provide to patients. One Anne Arundel County grower has already harvested a batch of pot for testing purposes and is primed to ramp up production when the time comes, but when is the time actually coming? This is a question four years in the making, and each time an answer appears on the horizon new hurdles must be cleared. While it is unlikely that the entire program is in jeopardy, the coming weeks will certainly bring a few sleepless nights for the workers who put in hundreds of hours and the investors who put up millions in order to make medical marijuana a reality here in Maryland.

There are at least three current issues threatening smooth operation of the state’s medical cannabis program, with two being on the state and local level and one on the federal level. The first issue is where to put all the dispensaries. The locations of the grow facilities have been set for months, and are scattered around the state in discrete industrial locations. These facilities are not open to the public, and will do their best to be out of sight and out of mind. The dispensaries are a different story, as they must be in areas that are accessible for the registered patients to pick up their medicine. The problem is that many residents in areas of proposed dispensaries are speaking out as to their disapproval of having medical pot shops in their neighborhoods. While these complaints lack a any sort of factual and rational basis (for example some citizens are concerned that dispensaries will bring crime and loitering riff raff) they are causing a stir that is being heard by state and local politicians. The program cannot function properly without numerous dispensaries to handle the high demand from patients.  A limited amount of dispensaries will severely disrupt the flow of the product from the grower to the patient, and will render the program relatively useless. The growers need the dispensaries as much as the dispensaries need the growers, so the hope is that all the zoning issues are sorted out quickly.

Another state based issue threatening the program is a recent decision by a Baltimore City Circuit Court judge that the case involving the disgruntled growers that were denied licenses will proceed to trial. The state had filed a motion to dismiss, but not surprisingly the judge ruled that it was a case left for the fact finder (judge or jury) to decide. A trial date has not been set, but the medical cannabis program will be allowed to operate while the case is pending.

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hammer-719061_640-300x225Numerous Maryland criminal laws changed on October 1st, but no change may have more of an impact in courtrooms around the state than the new sentencing rules for technical violations of probation. In theory probation is a convenient and fair tool for a judge to punish a defendant without imposing a jail sentence. While many defendants complete their probation term without incident and then move on with their lives, a large percentage don’t fair so well. Probation violations are too common in Maryland, and many should never happen in the first place. A probationer that is arrested for a new criminal or jailable traffic offense can expect a violation of probation to be initiated, as the officer really has no choice. But new law violations (also known as rule 4 violations) account for less than half of all VOPs. The majority of violations are technical, and these are the type that have been addressed by the legislature.

A technical violation is a violation of a condition of probation that does not involve an arrest or summons issued after a police officer files a statement of charges, a violation of a no contact or stay away order or generally speaking any violation of criminal law not including minor traffic offenses. Additionally, absconding from probation is not a technical violation. Absconding means avoiding supervision, but in reality missing more than one probation appointment could classify as absconding under the law. Every other type of violation is considered technical; this includes testing positive for drugs or alcohol, missing one appointment or showing up late to an appointment, not completing treatment, community service or anger management, and failing to pay restitution, fines and court costs. There are numerous other ways to be charged with a technical violation, as it depends on the specific conditions of probation. Probation agents can be patient and hold off on informing the judge of certain technicals, but in other cases agents are extremely inpatient and on a power trip. It is this type of agent that has contributed to the overwhelming number of VOPs that are currently clogging up the courts and the jails, but the hope is the new law may bring change.

As of the beginning of this month the maximum sentences for technical violations is now governed by a statute that almost always must be followed by state judges. Any defendant charged with a technical violation faces a maximum sentence of 15 days for a first offense, 30 for a second offense, 45 for a third and the full suspended time after that. In rare cases judges may deviate from these rules by making a finding that adhering to the new limits presents a danger to public safety, a victim or a witness. The new law will not only prevent knit picking judges from slamming a defendant for a positive drug test, but hopefully it will make probation officers think twice before violating one of their defendants. Agents may show more patience in borderline cases where a defendant has shown some progress, but this remains to be seen.

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police-378255_960_720-300x212Each year thousands of defendants are arrested or cited for crimes they did not commit, and thankfully a large percentage of these cases are dismissed in court. Defendants who are not fortunate enough to have their cases dismissed may still walk out of court without a permanent criminal conviction, and others may be given the opportunity to have the conviction stricken down the road. Exiting through the front door of the courthouse without a criminal conviction is only half the battle, as cases do not simply disappear upon being closed or dismissed. While it is certainly a relief to have your criminal case closed, the record of its existence could still be extremely damaging and stressful for years to some.

The question for many former defendants in the days following the closure of their cases is how to limit others from finding out about it. This includes current and prospective employers, academic institutions and professional organizations. Those who are searching for a potential better half also do not want to deal with the horror of a meticulous Google search turning up misleading negative information. Everyone (and their friends) has the tendency to pass quick judgment about a potential romantic interest, and a prior criminal case that is easily viewed online could spell disaster. So how can you prevent this from happening?

The answer to this question depends on a ton of factors including the specific outcome in court, and whether it was a state or federal case. For starters, the federal criminal justice system does not provide an avenue for a defendant to expunge his or her closed case. A defendant wrongfully charged with bank robbery in federal court will not be able to expunge the case even if it was nolle prossed prior to trial. The same goes for defendants charged with minor offenses such as petty theft or drug possession who complete community service in exchange for dismissals. All hope is not lost for federal criminal defendants though, as these cases are often more difficult for the general public to find. Unlike many state cases a federal case listed on PACER will not be visible with a simple web search and you cannot access this system without an account. Additionally some petty offense cases that are initiated via a citation may not show up in certain commercial background checks.

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1380109_the_maryland_state_house-300x229Each spring the passage of new laws creates numerous headlines coming out of the State House in Annapolis, and no subject creates more buzz than criminal legislation. Marijuana has dominated the last few years of criminal legislation headlines, but this year decriminalization and medical cannabis takes a back seat to a massive new set of laws falling under the Justice Reinvestment Act. Of all the new laws contained in the Act, none will be as impactful as the provision eliminating mandatory minimum jail sentences for a host of drug crimes. For decades a repeat offender for a low level drug dealing crime under 5-602 to 5-606 of the criminal code faced the possibility of a mandatory 10, 25 or 40 year sentence without parole. These mandatory sentences were often used as leverage by prosecutors to pressure defendants into pleading guilty, as the trial judge would have no choice but to slam a convicted defendant who turned down a plea deal. As of today though, a repeat offender for common street level drug dealer crimes such possession with intent to distribute narcotics will no longer face the possibility of a mandatory prison sentence upon conviction.

The new law repealing mandatory minimum sentencing only applies for street level drug dealing crimes and will have no effect on the so-called drug kingpin statute described in 5-612. These crimes, which include possessing, distributing or manufacturing 50 pounds or more of marijuana, 28 grams or more of opiates like heroin and 448 grams or more of cocaine will retain a 5-year mandatory sentence and a massive $100,000 potential fine. Mandatory minimum sentences for possessing a firearm in a drug trafficking crime are also unaffected by the new law.

In crafting the Justice Reinvestment Act lawmakers not only eliminated the mandatory minimum for low-level drug dealing, but also created an avenue for those already serving mandatory sentences for these crimes to file a special motion to modify their sentence. Starting today the courts are accepting motions to modify these sentences and will likely be inclined to grant them unless the state proves keeping the mandatory sentence intact is necessary for the protection of the public. Defendants currently serving prison time will have until September of 2018 to file for this special modification. Those serving mandatory sentences for drug kingpin crimes and firearm crimes are not eligible to file for this modification.

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graphics-882726_640-300x207In years past police officers had almost no other option but to arrest an individual observed committing a crime. This was true with respect to Maryland state cases and federal cases, but over the years the system has evolved to where a police officer can now charge a person with a crime without having to waste hours transporting and booking that person. When you think of federal crimes the first things that come to mind are complex criminal conspiracies like fraud and bribery (such as the recent college basketball recruiting scandal) or big time drug trafficking cases, but not all federal criminal cases are worthy of news headlines. The big cases technically could be handled by local and state law enforcement agencies because they usually occur on state property where state agencies have jurisdiction, but the Feds have their pick due to their vast resources. Federal ticket cases though are petty offenses that actually occur on federal property, where the only cops that have jurisdiction are the ones employed by the U.S. government. In essence, it is not the actual offense that makes the cases federal, but where the offense occurred.

Common state offenses where an officer may issue a citation and release the individual include shoplifting, possession of marijuana and trespassing. After the officer issues a citation the individual will be sent on their way, and told to check their mail for a court notice from the district court. For the most part federal tickets proceed in the same manner, but there are literally hundreds of different petty offenses that may result in a federal police officer issuing a ticket. Another difference is that all federal tickets are processed by one agency called the Central Violations Bureau or CVB. The CVB is the agency that notifies the federal district courts in Baltimore, Greenbelt or Salisbury to set must appear tickets for initial appearance and then trial, and is also the agency that processes the payment of fines.

The state of Maryland contains dozens of areas that are owned by the U.S. government and therefore policed by federal law enforcement agencies. These include Fort Meade, Joint Base Andrews, Aberdeen Proving Ground, NSA, Veteran Affairs medical centers and the NIH (National Institutes of Health). There are also numerous federal highways within the state such as the Baltimore Washington Parkway (295) and the Clara Barton Parkway and national parks such as Assateague National Seashore. All offenses committed in these areas, no matter how minor, must be handled in federal court and mandatory appearance tickets will be heard in front of a United States Magistrate Judge. If you are given probation you will be supervised by the U.S. Probation and Pretrial Services System and if you get a fine you must pay the CVB directly. There is a chance that your case may be resolved without paying a fine or receiving probation or jail time, but this must be pursuant to an agreement with a prosecutor from the U.S. Attorney’s Office.