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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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chicken-3727097__480-300x208Three Eastern Shore men were recently sentenced in the Baltimore City federal courthouse for their roles in an organized scheme to steal thousands of dollars of chicken parts and transport them for sale in New York City. According to the plea agreement the three men participated in this theft scheme over the course of eight months beginning in April of 2015. Two of the men were employees at a chicken processing plant in Cordova, Maryland, while the third was a truck driver for a shipping company that was contracted by the plant to transport its products. The two employees devised a scheme to bypass the plant’s inventory system and load pallets of frozen chicken onto their co-defendant’s truck. The truckloads bound for New York carried a combination of properly scanned pallets that would be sold to legitimate customers and unscanned pallets that would be sold illegally, with the three men keeping the profits for themselves.

In December of 2015 another chicken plant employee observed the two co-defendant employees loading unscanned pallets of frozen chicken onto the co-defendant driver’s truck. After questioning the two co-defendants he then reported his observations to a supervisor who notified the trucking company. The driver apparently ignored an order from the trucking company to return to the plant, and brazenly continued on to New York. GPS locators on the truck showed that the driver made the legitimate deliveries, but also stopped at unauthorized locations to sell the unscanned chicken. On top of all this, law enforcement officers recovered social media posts of the truck driver in the cab of the truck flashing cash he had received from selling the stolen chicken, and text conversations between co-defendants about marketing their stolen product.

The youngest of the three, a 39-year old from Easton, was sentenced to 7 months in jail followed by three years of supervised probation. A few days earlier the 43-year old defendant from Easton received a year in jail followed by probation, and the 58-year old truck driver from Delaware received four months jail with probation upon his release. The three defendants were also ordered to pay almost $250,000 in criminal restitution as part of their sentence. This figure was estimated by the chicken plant’s insurance company that is now on the hook for a quarter million dollars.

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Medical-Cannabis-300x200For the last few years Maryland residents have been required to obtain a license to legally purchase a handgun. The handgun qualification license or HQL has been in effect since October of 2013 and requires purchasers to complete safety training and pass a full background check with the state police that includes fingerprinting. Those wishing to purchase rifles and shotguns are not subject to these requirements, and must only fill out a federally issued form and pass an instant background check. If you come with proper identification and pass the ATF’s check you can easily buy a semi-automatic shotgun or rifle in under an hour. But handguns are different, and despite anticipated backlash from the gun lobby the HQL requirement has largely remained out of the news since 2013.

Fast forward 5 years and the HQL law is back in the news after medical marijuana users are discovering they may have given up their right to purchase a handgun simply for registering as patients. In addition to convicted felons and those found guilty of other crimes such as second degree assault, the Maryland public safety code prohibits drug addicts and habitual drunkards from possessing any type of firearm. The language of the statute is key, as Maryland law does not broadly prohibit those who use drugs or drink alcohol from possessing or purchasing guns. Federal law on the other hand has prohibited the sale of guns to users of controlled substances since the Gun Control Act of 1968 and the Brady act of 1993, and it is this decades old legislation that is now the reason more than 20 medical marijuana patients have been denied the right to purchase a handgun. Marijuana is still defined as a controlled substance under federal law, and while the feds have yet to show signs they would enforce these acts as they relate to medical marijuana in Maryland, the state police apparently do not wish to assist citizens in breaking the dated law.

Patients who register with the Maryland Medical Cannabis Commission are protected by federal HIPAA regulations, and their identities cannot be disclosed anyone, especially to law enforcement. But within the last year the state police have added a question in their HQL application that asks the applicant whether they are a registered user of medical marijuana. The police may not have access to the database, but lying on the application is a federal offense that carries up to 10 years in prison, making it unreasonable to risk criminal prosecution simply to purchase a handgun. Therefore by simply asking the question the state police are effectively banning medical marijuana patients from lawfully purchasing a handgun, and are covering their butts from the feds in the process. The questionnaire also adds a layer of protection to state gun dealers, who risk federal prosecution for unlawfully selling handguns in violation of the Brady Act. Violating the act is not a strict liability crime, meaning the shop would have to know or have reason to believe they are selling to a prohibited person. The impression we get from the HQL is that the state is not interested in subjecting its citizens to federal prosecution, but at the same time does not want to be complicit in violating federal law.

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hammer-719066_960_720-300x225Finding out there is a warrant for your arrest is a terrible feeling, but there are a number of things you can do to minimize your time in custody or better yet avoid being arrested at all.   There are two types of warrants for criminal cases in Maryland state courts, and the first step is to figure out what type of warrant you have. The most common type of warrant in Maryland is a bench warrant, which just like its namesake is issued by a district or circuit court judge of the from the bench. A large percentage of bench warrants are issued in open court after a defendant fails to appear at a mandatory court appearance. Failure to appear at any mandatory court date will likely result in a warrant regardless of the seriousness of the case. Even non-jailable offenses like civil alcohol citations for underage drinking and driving on a suspended license (section h) require the appearance of the defendant and authorize judges to issue warrants for failures to appear.

Not all failures to appear are created equal. A defendant who fails to appear for his or her trial date on a felony criminal offense will likely receive a no bail bench warrant, and any prior bail or pre-trial release will be forfeited.   A defendant who fails to appear at sentencing could be in an even worse position, as the judge or the state may rescind any prior plea offer. Upon arrest these defendants may be forced to wait in custody until their case is over or at the very least until the issuing judge modifies the no bail hold. A defendant who fails to appear at a misdemeanor criminal case or traffic case by receive a bench warrant with a preset bail or with instructions for the commissioner to set bail. These defendants can go straight to the district court commissioner’s office if they want to have the warrant lifted, but there is always the risk the commissioner will deny bail. If the commissioner denies bail the defendant will have to wait until the next business day to see a judge. Violation of probation warrants are also considered bench warrants, but many times these warrants have either preset bails or no bails. Either way, the best way to deal with bench warrant is to contact an attorney and have him or her file a motion to recall the warrant. Judges are not robots, and if you have a legitimate reason why you missed court, or if you simply forgot the judge may have enough sympathy to quash the warrant and then direct the clerk to issue a summons. While you can try to accomplish this by filing your own pro se motion it is always better to hire an attorney, as the judge will see you have made an investment in the case and are not likely to miss court again. This is also true for violation of probation warrants, as judges just want to make sure you show up for your VOP hearing before considering to recall your warrant.

The second type of warrant is an arrest warrant, and there are far too many issued in Maryland when the more practical thing to do would be to issue a summons. A true arrest warrant should only be used in cases where the commissioner or judge believes the defendant is a danger or a flight risk, but unfortunately it doesn’t work this way. On recommendation from a police officer or from the state or based on a civilian statement of charges a judge or commissioner may bypass setting a court date and issuing a summons for an arrest warrant. These warrants are more difficult to work around because they are typically sealed for 90 days and as a result you can’t just file a motion to have them recalled. Also, a person with an arrest warrant cannot simply go to the commissioner’s office to take care of it, as he or she must be booked at the police station before going to the commissioner. If the state either indicts the defendant or files an information in the circuit court, the defendant will not go to the commissioner at all. After being booked at the police station he or she will be taken directly to the county or city jail to await being bailed out or seeing a circuit court judge. In cases involving arrest warrants it is entirely possible to take care of the whole process in just a couple of hours, but knowing where to go and what time to go is key. The most basic advice if you know or think you have a warrant is not to wait too long to address it. The sooner you act the better it will look to the judge, and it’s always better to turn yourself in on your own terms then to be arrested out of the blue. If you or a loved one has a warrant feel free to contact Benjamin Herbst at 410-207-2598. Benjamin is an experienced Maryland criminal defense lawyer that specializes in handling bench warrants and arrest warrants.

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prison-300x201Two county jails in Maryland are now under investigation for alleged mistreatment of juvenile inmates. In response to complaints lodged by the Public Defender’s Office, the State Department of Education is investigating whether juvenile inmates were properly separated from the adult jail population while being housed at adult facilities. State and federal law requires juvenile inmates to be totally separated by sight and sound from the rest of the population, which is often accomplished by housing them in separate wings or units of the jail. But the Baltimore County and Frederick County Detention Centers now stand accused of violating these laws and have yet to issue any statements denying the accusations.

A 2015 Maryland law requires that juvenile defendants charged with adult crimes must be housed in juvenile facilities until their request to transfer the case back to juvenile court has been denied. Legally speaking the transfer request is called a reverse waiver hearing. This is an essential stage of the case, and all child defendants must be afforded the opportunity to have their lawyer argue for the case to be heard in juvenile court. Adult criminal court simply does not offer the same type of services and support as juvenile court and is focused on punishment rather than the education and treatment.

Defendants under the age of 18 who commit a felony such as first degree assault or robbery with a firearm must petition a circuit court judge for a reverse waiver in order to be tried in juvenile court. Juvenile courts do not have original jurisdiction for serious offenses of this nature. The process of waiving a case down does not happen automatically and if a motion is not filed the defendant may lose this opportunity. At the reverse waiver hearing the judge will consider numerous factors such as the age of the child, the risk to public safety and the mental and physical condition of the child. If the judge denies the reverse waiver the child must then be transferred to an adult jail facility pending the results of the trial. Defendants that are in school at juvenile facilities will be taken out and sent to jails that offer minimal educational opportunities, and according to these reports struggle to keep their most vulnerable defendants safe.

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Gun-evidence-box-300x225This past week a 23-year old man from Baltimore was sentenced to 13 years in prison for his role in a brazen gun store robbery that left one victim locked in a vault and others fearing for their lives. Four other co-defendants had already been sentenced at the U.S. District court in Baltimore, including the principal planner who received 20 years for armed commercial robbery. The fifth and final sentencing hearing closes a case that federal law enforcement officers and prosecutors had been working on since August of 2016.

According to the plea agreement the five co-defendants targeted an independently owned firearms and bait and tackle store in the Dundalk area of Baltimore County. The principal planner drove his four cohorts to the store in a stolen pickup truck. The defendant and another co-defendant then entered the store brandishing their own firearms and bound one of the employees with zip-ties while making the other employee empty the cash register at gunpoint. Two other co-defendants then entered the store while the planner backed the stolen pickup to the front door of the shop. The four men then proceeded to load 37 firearms into duffel bags and then ran to the truck, but not before shoving one employee into a vault and locking her inside. Three assault rifles were included in the 37, along with a silencer and cash.

After fleeing to Baltimore the five co-defendants divided up the cash and guns and went their separate ways. The FBI, ATF and Baltimore County Police Department all went to work immediately on the case, and their investigation resulted in numerous search warrants that yielded evidence of the robbery. Video surveillance showed that the 23-year old defendant left earbuds inside the store, and also handled a shotgun that he did not ultimately steal. Law enforcement was able to recover a fingerprint from the shotgun that led to a database match, which in turn provided probable cause for a search warrant.   Law enforcement also could have recovered DNA from the earbuds used in the robbery in their investigation. A search of this defendant’s home produced numerous firearms from the store with the tags still attached, and also the loaded pistol that the defendant used in the robbery. Additionally, law enforcement recovered evidence that the defendant committed other robberies just weeks before hitting the Dundalk shop. The defendant likely avoided prosecution in these cases by striking a plea deal with the government.