Articles Posted in Court Rulings

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marijuana-1281540_1280-300x225A recent Maryland Court of Appeals order likely prevented months of further delays to the medical marijuana program, and now registered patients may have access to cannabis by the end of the summer. The high court order blocked a Baltimore City judge from conducting a hearing about whether to stop the state medical cannabis commission from issuing more final grow licenses. Only one of the fifteen approved growers currently has a final license that allows the legal commencement of the cultivation process. The other fourteen were not able to secure a final license under the Baltimore City Circuit Court judge’s temporary restraining order, which was requested by minority owned grow companies that were not one of the fifteen to receive preliminary licenses to operate. The restraining order was supposed to expire on the date of the hearing, but now there will be no hearing and the order has expired.

The Court of Appeals did not release a full opinion on the matter, but rather stayed the restraining order portion of the lawsuit that is challenging whether the licensing process took race into account as required by law. The disgruntled growers requested the restraining order after arguing they would suffer greater harm should the medical marijuana program be allowed to proceed before their lawsuit is resolved. The Baltimore judge had barred the fourteen growers awaiting final licenses from participating in the restraining order hearing, which raised issues of fairness and standing, and may have prompted the Court of Appeals to issue the emergency order. Another issue the high court likely considered was the amount of money the licensed growers invested and stood to lose if the growing process was halted indefinitely. Lawyers argued that the companies who received preliminary licenses invested over $150 million in final preparation to begin growing and distributing.

Over the last four years most of the news headlines pertaining to medical marijuana here in Maryland have focused on incompetence, delays and corruption. News of the recent order by the Court of Appeals appears to buck this trend, and we could finally be approaching the home stretch where the first dose of medical cannabis reaches a patient in need. Estimates of the program officially becoming active in late summer are cautiously optimistic, but at this point there does not appear to be any impending issues that could threaten this timeline. There is always the risk that the federal government could somehow get involved, though this appears unlikely. The state’s highest court has spoken rather loudly that it believes medical marijuana should proceed without further delay. Whether the program could abruptly be halted sometime again in the future is another question, and one that will constantly be hanging over the heads of the licensed growers, distributors and patients. It has been argued that the licensing process was unconstitutional at its core, and this issue will be resolved in court or by way of negotiated settlement. A settlement however would likely have to involve the legislature granting additional license to the aggrieved parties, which is a long shot and would have legal issues of its own. For now though the medical cannabis program steams ahead and the Blog will continue to follow any more potential hiccups.

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gun-728958_1280-300x169Lawmakers stated in no uncertain terms their desire to make Maryland one of the toughest gun law states in the country when they passed the Firearm Safety Act back in the spring of 2013. The then democratic governor’s signature was a foregone conclusion and as of October of that same year the sale, purchase and transfer of semi-automatic handguns with a magazine capacity greater than 10 rounds became illegal, as did the possession of certain “assault” rifles and pistols. New security requirements were also established for state residents wishing to purchase firearms. While the magazine capacity limitation was frustrating for dealers, potential buyers and manufacturers such as Beretta, which was in essence forced to move dozens of M9 pistol manufacturing jobs out of Maryland, it was the assault rifle ban that caused the most backlash.

Politicians and anti-gun lobby groups hailed the assault rifle ban as a major victory in the fight against gun violence but it also left many outraged that it was neither constitutional nor beneficial. Firearms rights advocacy groups such as the NRA challenged the ban on numerous popular weapons such AR-15, which is a semiautomatic civilian version of the M-16 automatic assault rifle. The state prevailed in round one of litigation after a federal district court judge ruled that Maryland lawmakers did not overstep constitutional boundaries by banning weapons they believed were not built for self defense or recreational purposes, but rather to kill. Round two of litigation went to the NRA and other original plaintiffs. The United States Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit remanded the decision back to district court because the judge used an incorrect standard when conducting a balancing test between government intrusion and the state’s interest in protecting its citizens. But not long after this decision came down the state appealed, and the Fourth Circuit agreed to hear the case again. Only this time all judges at the Richmond, Virginia appellate court would be present and involved in the decision rather than a panel of just three judges like in the prior appeal.

In a somewhat lopsided decision, the Fourth Circuit recently ruled 10-4 that the Second Amendment does not protect so called assault rifles from being banned by Maryland law. The opinion labels weapons like the AR-15 as “weapons of war” that have already been excluded from constitutional protection by the Supreme Court in a prior case out of Washington D.C. The appeals court wrote that state lawmakers and not the courts bear the responsibility for the safety of their residents, and should not be prevented from regulating assault weapons. A strong dissenting opinion argued that states should have no say in what type of weapon citizens should be able to keep in their homes for protection as long as that weapon is one commonly possessed by American people for lawful purposes, and the AR-15 is undeniably possessed lawfully by thousands of Americans.

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

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

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

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thirteen-bags-of-marijuana-found-in-taxi-cabAs states move toward placing marijuana policy in the hands of voters and for the most part legalizing it, Maryland is still stuck in the dark ages where pot ties up court resources, and has lawmakers and lawyers up in arms. Medical marijuana has already invaded the civil courts, as multiple lawsuits over the grower licensing system are pending. And while we are seeing a significantly lower amount of marijuana cases prosecuted since possession under 10 grams became decriminalized, pot is still a common cause of litigation in criminal courts. Not only are there still numerous new cases filed each year for criminal possession, manufacturing and distribution of marijuana, but there are also a host of new legal issues involving law enforcement search and seizures.

When the legislature decriminalized simple possession it immediately created a grey area for probable cause searches under the Fourth Amendment. Normally a police officer is justified to search a person and his or her automobile if the officer gathers information that objectively leads to the conclusion that that a crime has likely occurred. This, save for a few minor twists, is probable cause in a nutshell. The Maryland decriminalization law left a major ambiguity in whether the discovery of a non-criminal amount of marijuana would justify a broader search of the suspect and his or her car. These broader searches usually turn up other evidence such as narcotics and firearms, which is why the issue is far reaching. We’re not just dealing with pot cases here. In fact, the Court of Appeals in Annapolis recently heard oral arguments on three cases where officers conducted Fourth Amendment searches based solely on the odor of marijuana. The trial courts and the Special Court of Appeals all ruled in favor of the prosecution that the searches were valid, and now the highest court will issue their opinion in the next few weeks.

Defense lawyers and civil rights advocates have argued that smelling burnt or raw pot, or finding less than 10 grams of it without more does not rise to the level of evidence that a crime has occurred, and would not justify a broader search. Rather, an officer who smells or recovers a non-criminal amount of pot must issue a civil citation, confiscate the weed and move on.  The government has argued that no amount of marijuana is legal in Maryland, and therefore police are authorized to search for and seize anything unlawful. The government has emphasized that a civil offense is still an offense, and the fine for simple possession is used to punish unlawful behavior. An assistant attorney general also argued that presence of the drug is enough evidence to provide officers with probable cause that more will be found, an argument does not seem to have any sort of factual basis.

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bottles-1235327_960_720Maryland’s highest court recently released a potentially groundbreaking opinion by ruling that adults may be liable for the actions of underage drinkers whom they provided alcohol. The ruling stems from two cases involving auto accidents where intoxicated teenagers were the drivers. The plaintiff in the Baltimore County case was walking her dog when she was struck by an SUV driven by an 18-year-old that had been drinking at the home of the defendant. The defendant had allegedly provided mixed drinks to the teenaged driver, and made no effort to assure that the young man would not get behind the wheel that night. The other case stemmed from a tragic accident that occurred in Howard County back in 2009. The plaintiff is the family of a 17-year-old that was killed as he was the passenger in the flat bed of a pickup truck driven by his allegedly intoxicated friend. The lawsuit states that the driver had been drinking in the garage of the defendant’s home with full knowledge of the defendant.

Both lawsuits target a third party that is claimed to be liable for damages caused by another individual, which in these cases are the two teenaged drivers. This theory of indirect third party “social host” liability is tough to prove and until now has never been recognized in Maryland. Upwards of 20 states have dram shop laws that allow liability of establishments arising from the sale of visibly intoxicated individuals that later cause injuries to another, but our state is not one of them. While this Court of Appeals ruling does not address dram shop, it will now pave the way for future civil actions against adults that furnish alcohol to minors. The court opined that young adults under the age of 21 are not competent to handle the potentially dangerous effects of alcohol, and are more susceptible to harming themselves or others when presented with the opportunity to drink in excess. According to the court some of the onus must fall on an adult that was present, and facilitated the conduct.

This appeals court ruling addresses civil liability, and it coincidentally comes at a time when the legislator has just expanded criminal liability for adults that furnish alcohol to minors. In May the governor approved a bill that will soon allow judges to incarcerate adults for up to one year if he or she provided alcohol to an underage drinker that subsequently injures or kills another person while driving a motor vehicle. This jail time provision was not present in the old statute, which under section 10-117 of the criminal code had a maximum punishment of a $2,500 fine for a first offense and $5,000 for a second offense. There will still be fines under the new law and the possibility of a misdemeanor criminal conviction, but jail time will only become a sentencing option in there is a serious bodily injury. Some lawmakers attempted to add a jail provision regardless of the minor causing an injury, though this version did not pass the General Assembly.

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hammer-719066_960_720The Special Court of Appeals has agreed to hear arguments on a major 5th Amendment issue stemming from the Baltimore City trial of the main defendant in the Freddie Gray case. In doing so, Maryland’s second highest court also ordered that the circuit court postpone the trial just hours before jury selection was set to commence. Oral arguments are set for the first week in March, allowing the Attorney General and the defense attorneys time to respond to each other’s legal briefs. The issue up for debate is whether the first defendant, whose case is still pending after a mistrial was declared, will be compelled to testify against one or more of the co-defendants. Under normal circumstances a defendant with pending charges would never be required to testify in any matter related to those pending charges. But the government is attempting to argue that their case is far from ordinary, and that the first defendant should be forced to take the stand against his former fellow officer.

The right to be protected from self-incrimination is one of the foundations of our criminal justice system, and “pleading the 5th” is one of the few legal concepts that comes to life as often in real cases as it does in Hollywood courtroom dramas. But in the case of the first officer, whose case resulted in a mistrial, the government is arguing there would be no self-incrimination implications should he be forced to testify against the other defendants. The government offered use immunity to the first officer, which means that they promised in writing to refrain from using any of the testimony against him at later time. Therefore the Attorney General will argue that there is no possibility that the officer’s testimony could get him into more trouble. This argument was compelling enough at least for the Baltimore City Circuit Court judge to buy, but don’t expect the appeals courts to be convinced as easily.

The defense introduced two main rebuttals to the government’s immunity argument. The attorneys argued that if the officer’s testimony is even slightly different the second and third time around he could face perjury charges, and they called attention to the numerous times that prosecutors called the first officer a liar during the December trial in support of this argument. The defense lawyers also suggested that even if the officer is eventually acquitted in the city circuit court he could still face federal charges. Per Department of Justice orders, federal prosecutors have been monitoring this case and were seen in court throughout the trial. The feds have made no such offer of immunity, and theoretically could use every bit of compelled state court testimony in a federal prosecution. While this seems like the stronger argument of the two, the shear historical strength of the 5th Amendment is perhaps the government’s greatest challenge to compelling the officer’s testimony. Ordering a defendant with a pending criminal case to testify against a co-defendant would be a direct shot at the 5th Amendment, and the implications would run contrary to decades of case law upholding the right to remain silent. The circuit court judge has a valid desire to move theses cases along, but the appeals courts will look at the bigger picture, and a ruling that undermines the constitutional protections afforded by the 5th Amendment is unlikely.

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1010760_dna_1DNA collection and preservation by law enforcement has been one of the more hotly contested privacy issues of the last decade. The presence of a defendant’s DNA at a crime scene is often the most compelling state’s evidence at trial, while the lack of DNA at the scene can be equally as strong for the defense. Maryland law gives police the right to take a suspect’s DNA sample in certain arrests, and this procedure is usually done with a minimally evasive cheek swab. No warrant is required to take the swab pursuant to a federal court decision from two years, which established that DNA triggers similar privacy rights to a booking photo or a fingerprint. Additionally submitting to a DNA sample is not testimony, and therefore a defendant does not have the right to consult with an attorney prior to opening up for the swab. There’s no denying the power of DNA evidence in open law enforcement investigations, as both the defense and prosecution have hung their hat on it thousands of times. But controversy arises when DNA collected for an entirely different reason is used to solve a cold case, or a criminal case with no leads. Recently, The Maryland Court of Appeals handed down a decision that may once again spark the nationwide DNA debate.

Three years ago an Anne Arundel County man voluntarily submitted to a law enforcement DNA swab after he was suspected of being involved in a rape. The sample didn’t match and the man was cleared of any wrongdoing in the rape, but just one year later he was indicted on a burglary charge that had actually occurred five years prior. Police had kept his voluntarily submitted sample and plugged it into a database for the cold case burglary. When the sample matched the man felt he had no defense, and pled guilty to a four year suspended sentence. The defense appealed stating that keeping and using the man’s DNA for another purpose than the rape case amounted to an illegal search and seizure that violated the Fourth Amendment. The Maryland high court judges disagreed, and ruled that once police lawfully obtain a person’s DNA they are free to keep it and use it for any law enforcement purpose. Once they have it, they get to keep it.

The decision by the Court of Appeals is hardly groundbreaking. Police have been holding on to fingerprints for decades. But that’s not even the most compelling argument for the government. The protections of the Fourth Amendment prevent law enforcement from illegally infringing on our right to live as private citizens. When cops overstep their boundaries to obtain evidence then it is a judge’s duty to suppress everything that flows from the illegal intrusion. But when law enforcement conducts a legal search or seizure any other unexpected pieces of evidence they recover are fair game. If cops execute a search warrant looking for drugs and instead find illegal firearms and stolen property, then the defendant will be charged accordingly. All the evidence will be admissible. It’s the same principal with DNA collection; if law enforcement lawfully takes a sample for one investigation, they are free to use it if it matches on another investigation. This decision is not one that will please defense attorneys, but it’s hardly the most surprising one to come out of Annapolis.

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DUI4.jpgDrunk driving has become the most hotly debated and visible crime in the entire country. The amount of media attention and lobbyist money that is directed toward DUI education and prevention simply has no comparison. Sure, the war on drugs is trudging along, and sucking up millions of taxpayer dollars, but it targets dozens of substances, and not one single offense. Drunk driving stands alone for a variety of reasons including the fact that it is so common, and its defendants do not fall within a specific age or socioeconomic group. Teenagers, professionals, celebrities, cops, politicians etc. can be the defendants, and unfortunately the victims of this offense. All the media and lobbyist attention does not go unnoticed by lawmakers and state agencies, and as a result there are pages of laws and regulations governing DUI policy. The courts are charged with the task of interpreting each of these regulations, and this past week Maryland’s highest court released a lengthy opinion after being called upon to do just that.
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The bail review process in Maryland could be headed for some major changes as the current system is slated for review in the Court of Appeals on March 7th. Nearly eight years ago a group of detainees in the Baltimore City jail filed a class action lawsuit challenging the state’s bail review process. Specifically they challenged the first appearance procedure where a recently arrested defendant goes before a court commissioner for a bail review. Under the current state law no detainee is entitled to an attorney at this first appearance, and the commissioner is free to make whatever determination he or she decides. Court commissioners are not judges or lawyers, and no legal experience is required for the job. The ones who typically suffer are poor, non violent offenders who can be forced to sit in custody for days or even weeks on bails as low as a few hundred dollars. But it’s not only the poor who suffer, as some commissioners have the tendency to impose egregiously high bail amounts for cases without putting forth the effort to completely examine the circumstances of the case. The issue scheduled for debate is whether having an attorney present at the commissioner bail reviews would prevent unjust and unnecessary pre-trial detention, and if the cost to provide lawyers at these hearings is worth the potential benefit.
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gun.jpgThe Blog has posted multiple articles about our state’s gun laws in the past few weeks as Maryland’s controversial gun laws just cannot seem to stay out of the news. This week was no different, with another headline courtesy of the United States Supreme Court. The Court recently announced that it would not hear argument on the statewide firearm carry permit law, which was upheld by U.S. Court of Appeals for the 4th District this past year. The challenge to the law began when a gun owner from Baltimore had his concealed carry application denied because he could not prove to the state that he had a “good and substantial reason” for the license. This was despite the fact that the man’s house had been burglarized multiple times. The gun owner filed suit in federal district court, and was joined by The Second Amendment foundation, an organization that opposes firearm restrictions. The district court judge agreed that the law was too restrictive and vague, and found it unconstitutional. But the victory was short lived for plaintiffs after the Appellate court reversed and held that the law could stand. Both parties were confident that the Supreme Court would settle the issue for good (and in their respective favor), but it wasn’t to be as the Court decided the 4th Circuit would have the final say.
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