Articles Posted in Drug Arrests

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pistol-1350484_1280-300x200The federal government’s commitment to prosecuting Baltimore City gun crimes was on display again this week, as two men were sentenced to almost ten years in prison for unlawful firearm possession. Both the ATF and the Baltimore Police Department participated in the investigations that ultimately led to the convictions, and sentences were announced by the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the District of Maryland. In the first case a 35-year old received a sentence of 100 months in federal prison followed by 3 years of probation for illegal possession of a stolen firearm. According to the plea, law enforcement executed a search warrant of the defendant’s residence and found a stolen semi-automatic handgun on the couch along with marijuana that the defendant planned to sell.   In the plea the defendant agreed that the firearm was possessed in furtherance of a drug trafficking crime, and admitted that the he knew the firearm was stolen. The defendant was prohibited from possessing a firearm due to multiple prior felony convictions

Just 3 days later, a second Baltimore man was sentenced by the same federal judge to 9 years in prison for possession with intent to distribute a controlled substance and possession of a firearm in the furtherance of a drug trafficking crime. The jail sentence will be followed by 5 years of probation, or supervised release as it is termed in the federal system. According to the plea agreement police officers observed the defendant participating in a drug transaction and attempted make contact with him, but the defendant fled the scene. After a brief pursuit the defendant was arrested, and a search incident to arrest revealed oxycodone bills and over $400 in cash. Police also recovered a black jacket nearby with a loaded handgun inside the pocket. Law enforcement was able to prove the jacket belonged to the defendant using evidence recovered from a search warrant. This defendant was already prohibited from possessing a handgun due to prior felony convictions for possession with intent to distribute narcotics.

Both defendants could have easily been prosecuted in the Circuit Court in Baltimore, but the feds continue to pound the message that they will not ignore illegal gun possession in the city. Both Maryland law and federal law provide mandatory minimum prison sentences for illegal gun possession, but gun charges carry lengthier prison sentences in the federal system, and defendants are never eligible for parole. The defendants received lengthy sentences in large part due to their status as prior convicted felons, but the fact that drugs were involved with both cases contributed as well. Under Maryland law a person is subject to a 5-year minimum prison sentence without parole for both illegal possession of a firearm and possession of a firearm in furtherance of a drug trafficking crime. Illegal possession of a firearm does not necessarily mean that a person must be a convicted felon. Misdemeanor convictions for second degree assault, and any other crime that carries a more than 2-year maximum penalty will disqualify a person from possessing a gun under state law. Additionally, a conviction for a domestically related offense and even a probation before judgment for domestic assault disqualifies a person. Possession of a firearm in the furtherance of a drug trafficking crime also carries a 5-year sentence without parole. The prosecution must establish that the gun and the drugs have some sort of relationship or nexus, but prior case law on this issue is not in favor of defendants.

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concertina-wire-1031773_960_720-200x300Just a few short years after a massive corruption ring landed numerous corrections officers in prison and permanently shuttered the Baltimore City Detention Center, the feds have announced yet another bust at a Maryland correctional facility. The United States Attorney’s Office recently announced that twenty defendants have been indicted on federal racketeering charges for their roles various ongoing criminal conspiracies at the Maryland Correctional Institute Jessup or MCIJ. Six of these defendants were corrections officers or other employees at the facility, with one being a high-ranking lieutenant and another being a nurse. Seven inmates and seven civilians were also part of the indictment, which became public after the defendants were arrested. The FBI took part in the press release and reiterated that corruption will continue to be one of their main areas of focus. Eliminating prison corruption has also been a top priority for Governor Hogan after the embarrassing scandal in Baltimore created national headlines for weeks. Since 2015 almost 200 defendants have been charged with crimes related to prison corruption in Maryland.

This particular investigation began as early as 2014 and revealed an ongoing smuggling ring at MCIJ, where employees and civilians would conspire to sneak contraband into the facility for pay. The contraband included narcotics such as MDMA (molly), Suboxone strips and other drugs such as marijuana and K2. Tobacco, cell phones and unauthorized thumb drives were also allegedly smuggled into the facility and paid for by inmates using electronic transactions on the illegal cell phones. This criminal conspiracy is eerily similar to the prior jailhouse conspiracy in Baltimore and other instances of prison corruption across the country. There will always be a market for contraband in prison facilities as we have seen glorified in movies such as Shawshank Redemption, though in Shawshank it wasn’t entirely clear how the inmates paid for their contraband. Untraceable electronic forms of payment such as green dot cards have made the exchange of currency much easier, but outsiders are still needed to physically bring desired contraband into the facility. For some, a cut of the extreme markup that contraband brings is too easy to pass up, but as we see there are serious consequences for taking part in this business.

Almost all of the defendants face a maximum of 20 years in prison for the racketeering counts, and half face the same 20-year maximum for conspiracy to distribute narcotics and possession with intent to distribute drugs. The highest-ranking officer faces life in prison for depravation of rights under color of law for allegedly threatening inmates with death or serious bodily injury. Federal prosecutors credited the DPSCS and its employees, who actually initiated the investigation and alerted federal law enforcement to the ongoing conspiracy. While this case could have been prosecuted in state court, it is common for the FBI to take over large-scale corruption conspiracies due to their ample resources and stiffer penalties under the federal sentencing guidelines.

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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.

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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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caution-389408__480-300x201Maryland State Police recently arrested a man who was waiting in line to take his driving test at the MVA headquarters in Glen Burnie, and charged him with numerous drug felonies.  The 23-year old from Baltimore was in his mother’s vehicle awaiting his turn with a driving instructor when an MVA employee noticed the smell of marijuana coming from the car.  An MSP trooper responded to the scene and initiated a warrantless search of the vehicle based on probable cause that it contained marijuana.  The trooper’s suspicion was confirmed and then some, after he located a large plastic bag containing approximately 1 pound of marijuana, a 9 millimeter handgun, a digital scale and more than $15,000 cash. The man was arrested immediately after the contraband was discovered and taken before a commissioner.  He was released that same day on an unsecured $7,500 personal bond.

The young man now faces a dozen charges in Anne Arundel County including possession with intent to distribute and possession of marijuana over ten grams. The maximum penalty of PWID marijuana is 5 years, though recent changes to the sentencing guidelines have decreased the amount of jail time most defendants actually see for this offense. Nowadays it is rare for a first time offender to serve much if any jail time unless he or she is involved in a large-scale operation.  The concerns for the defendant in this case are the gun charges, especially the crime of possession of a firearm during a drug trafficking crime.  A conviction for this felony charge carries a minimum five-year prison sentence, which cannot be suspended and the defendant is not eligible for parole.  The defendant is also charged with the less common crime of firearm use during the commission of a felony that also carries a mandatory five years, but is a misdemeanor. Other gun counts include handgun on person and handgun in vehicle, which are essentially the same crime with the same 3-year maximum penalty.

The 9-millimeter Glock that was seized from the car allegedly had an altered or scratched out serial number, and this is a separate crime under the public safety code.  Under Maryland law anyone found to be in possession of a gun with an altered serial number is presumed to have altered it.  Finally, the defendant in this case was also charged with possession of a detached magazine with over ten rounds.  The controversial Firearms Safety Act now limits the capacity of gun magazines to ten bullets, which makes many common firearms illegal in Maryland including the standard military Beretta pistol.  The Blog will follow this case as it progresses through the court system.  It is currently set for a preliminary hearing in district court, but the State will likely indict the case and it will be transferred to the circuit court in Annapolis. We will post an update if anything of interest happens in this case.  If the defendant is found guilty or enters a plea, the sentence will depend on whether he has a prior record of gun, drug or other criminal charges.  If you have a question about a criminal case in Maryland or have been charged with a crime feel free to call gun crime attorney Benjamin Herbst anytime at 410-207-2598.  Benjamin specializes in gun and drug charges in state and federal court and offers flexible payment plans for all types of cases.

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concertina-wire-1031773_960_720-200x300The Department of Justice recently reported that a former bail bondsman has been sentenced to five years in federal prison for his role in a drug distribution conspiracy with Baltimore Police officers.  According the plea agreement the 51-year old defendant from the Middle River area of Baltimore County stole drugs, cash and jewelry from citizens between 2015 and 2017.  He also obtained significant quantities of narcotics from a former Baltimore Police sergeant who is currently serving a 25-year sentence for racketeering, robbery, falsification of records and public corruption.  Court documents alleged that the sergeant would repeatedly steal or confiscate narcotics during the course of his duties as a police officer.  The sergeant would then deliver the drugs to the bail bondsman, who would store them on his property until he and other co-conspirators were able to sell them.  In some instances the bail bondsman tagged along with the police sergeant during raids and searches.  All told the bail bondsman netted hundreds of thousands of dollars from the illegal drug sales, which were divided among the numerous corrupt officers that helped facilitate the scam.

Multiple law enforcement organizations participated in this investigation including the FBI and the Baltimore County Police Department. Investigators likely received a great deal of information about this case from co-defendants looking to receive a break from the U.S. Attorney’s Office, but the case was made after the execution of a search warrant at the bail bondsman’s home yielded over 400 grams of crack, 200 grams of cocaine, 14 grams of heroin, MDMA, cash and expensive jewelry.  Luckily for the defendant no firearms were found during the execution of the warrant, as the presence of guns could have resulted in a much harsher sentence. Federal sentencing guidelines provide harsher penalties for certain gun crimes than Maryland state sentencing guidelines, and many of these offenses carry mandatory prison time.

The bail bond industry in Maryland has been hit hard by reforms mandated by the Court of Appeals and the state legislature.  Judges are no longer permitted to impose exorbitant bail amounts unless doing so would be the least restrictive means to assure the defendant’s return to court.  Bail in any amount may not be used as a means to protect the community while a defendant is pending trial, as this is now the responsibility of pre-trial services. Obviously, this case was not directly related to bail reform, but one is left to wonder whether tough financial times motivated this defendant to engage in illegal activities.

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heroinbust-300x198The Maryland State Police recently reported that arrests have been made and indictments filed for participants in a large Eastern Shore drug ring that also operated in Delaware.  The investigation began back in the spring when the Queen Anne’s County Drug Task Force began to focus on the alleged ring leader, a 31 year old male living in Centreville, who police believed was importing and distributing large amounts of heroin, cocaine and narcotic pills in the area.  An intense investigation led to the execution of multiple search warrants that were executed on June 1.  The search warrants resulted in the seizure of close to $32,000 in cash, seven vehicles, five firearms and over 250 grams of cocaine.  Police also seized smaller amounts of marijuana, oxycodone and heroin.

The alleged ringleader and some of his co-defendants were charged with multiple criminal counts in three separate cases, while other co-defendants were just charged in one case. It appears from court documents that the charges stemmed from alleged illegal activities that occurred on multiple different days.  The first date of incident appears to be April 30, and then there are multiple dates during May.  The last date is June 1, which is when the search warrants were executed and a few of the defendants (including the alleged ringleader) were arrested.  This means that that some of the defendants will face the difficult task of fighting the state in three separate cases, which seems unfair but is completely legal.  Police have no obligation to arrest a defendant the first time they commit a crime, but rather can wait days or even months to fully complete an investigation.  The defendant may be charged in different cases as long as the criminal acts were not part of a continuing course of action.  In this investigation the charges were separated by a few weeks each, which will likely stand up to any type of double jeopardy argument.

The lead defendant is charged with dozens of counts of CDS possession with intent to distribute and conspiracy to do the same.  Possession with intent to distribute narcotics such as heroin or cocaine is a felony with a 20-year maximum penalty.  Conspiracy has the same maximum penalty but is a common law offense that is classified as a misdemeanor.  At least two of the defendants are charged with illegal firearm possession and possession of a firearm during the commission of a drug trafficking offense. Each of these charges carries a minimum mandatory prison sentence, which cannot be waived by the judge and can run consecutive to any other count.  While this recent bust was large by Maryland standards, the police did not recover an amount of CDS required to trigger volume dealer or drug kingpin laws. These laws greatly enhance the penalty for possession or distribution of large amounts of drugs and place a 40-year maximum penalty on anyone who imports a large amount of CDS into the state. The threshold for these laws is 448 grams of cocaine, 28 grams of heroin and 50 pounds of marijuana, so based on the executed search warrants that we know of the defendants will not have to face these harsh drug laws.  Nonetheless the main defendants in this drug bust face a challenging battle ahead in the Circuit Court for Queen Anne’s County.

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beer-931826__480-300x199Depending on where you live schools are either out or ending Friday, and the annual senior week pilgrimage to Ocean City is already underway. Pretty soon traffic will be piling up on Bay Bridge each weekend, and Route 50 will be jam packed with beachgoers. If you venture east not only will you be sharing the road with thousands of station wagons and SUVs filled to the brim with coolers and chairs, but also with state and local law enforcement.  Maryland State Police have officially launched their “Lose the Booze” initiative for 2018, and are teaming up with local law enforcement on the Eastern Shore to combat underage drinking and DUI.  The Easton Police Department, Talbot County Sheriff and Caroline County Sheriff have already joined the initiative, and other law enforcement agencies in the area will certainly be on high alert for all drug and alcohol related offenses.

Police on the Eastern Shore are notorious for making arrests on the few thoroughfares that head to Ocean City and the Delaware beaches.  Route 50 is really the only direct way to Ocean City for beachgoers from Maryland, Washington D.C. and Virginia.  Police patrolling 50, 301 and 404 will always profile a car full of young adults/ teenagers and look for any excuse to make a traffic stop to investigate further.  Out of state license plates do not help the cause either.  Pennsylvania vacationers avoid most of the Maryland highways on their way to the beach but their PA license plate still sticks out on Coastal Highway and other roads inland.  Most of the time it’s speeding, but an officer who locks on to a car is legally permitted to make a stop for any type of traffic infraction, no matter how minor.  Once the traffic stop begins the officer can then use his or her observations to develop probable cause for a search.

Upon making a traffic stop Eastern Shore police officers are immediately looking for signs of impairment.  All police are trained to look for clues of DUI or DWI but officers in Ocean City and the surrounding areas almost expect it.  This is especially true on weekends in the afternoon, evening, or even first thing in the morning for those drivers who have not quite slept it off.  Cops that encounter teenagers or anyone that looks under the age of 21 will be on high alert for alcohol in the vehicle. Minors in possession of alcohol can be charged with a civil citation and face up to a $500 fine, which all minors in a car could be subject to if the alcohol is found in the passenger compartment.

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prison-300x201The national prison population continues to decline, and for the first time in almost fifteen years the total number of inmates dipped below 1.5 million.  Last year Maryland lead the entire nation with a dramatic 10 percent reduction in prisoners, which brought the state inmate population down almost 2 thousand to a total of around 18 thousand.  While the simplest explanation for the decline is the passage of the Justice Reinvestment Act, a closer look reveals a variety of factors at play.

The Justice Reinvestment Act or JRA was a groundbreaking and massive piece of legislation that sought to reduce money and manpower dedicated to jailing defendants, and to divert these resources to treating and rehabilitating convicted defendants.  The JRA eliminated harsh mandatory sentences for repeat drug offenders convicted of non-violent offenses such as possession with intent to distribute narcotics.  The maximum penalty for possession of CDS not marijuana was also lowered to one year, which eliminated the possibility of a prison sentence for drug possession.  While most state correctional inmates are serving the original sentence handed down by the judge, a large portion are doing time for violating their probation. Lawmakers became aware that the sentences handed down for probation violations were getting out of control, and used the JRA to do something about it.

Each day dozens of defendants plea out to large suspended sentences in order to be released from jail, and many end up back in court on a violation.  Some of these violations are extremely minor, and could be avoided by more patient probation officers.  In the past defendants faced years in prison for extremely minor violations, but since the JRA went into effect there are now limits on the sentences handed down for these so called technical violations.  The limits are not binding on the judge, but are certainly persuasive when it comes to sentencing a probationer for a positive drug test, failing to complete treatment or not paying restitution.

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Ecstasy-300x174A host of potential modifications to existing Maryland criminal and traffic laws are currently up for debate in Annapolis. Many of these modifications could greatly affect the criminal justice system, while others will grab headlines but have very little impact in courthouses throughout the state. One bill that could have a huge impact on the justice system is a proposal currently in the House of Delegates that would effectively decriminalize the possession of small amounts of controlled substances. We’re not talking about marijuana here, as possession of a small or de minimis quantity of pot has already been modified from a jailable misdemeanor to a civil infraction. The lawmakers behind this bill want to decriminalize possession of small amounts of cocaine, heroin, MDMA, LSD, methadone and amphetamine as well.

The proposed House law is similar to the Marijuana decriminalization law that eliminated the possibility of jail time for possession of less than 10 grams. The ten-gram threshold was basically an arbitrary number that lawmakers agreed upon to differentiate between criminal possession and a civil infraction. Sponsoring delegates of the de minimis quantity bill have already settled on threshold amounts for all the other drugs covered under the proposed law. For cocaine, methadone and heroin lawmakers chose 300 milligrams, which is no more than a day’s supply for a regular user and much less than that for an addict. The threshold for MDMA and LSD would be five pills or tabs, and for amphetamine it would be 200 mg. If the law were to pass, anyone arrested with less than these amounts could not be arrested, but rather would receive a civil citation ranging from $100 to $500 depending on the prior number of violations. The law would also give the judge authority to order an offender under the age of 21 into a state approved drug education program.

If this bill were to become law it would have a groundbreaking affect on the amount of arrests across the state, and the criminal dockets (especially the bail review dockets) would shrink considerably, as drug offenses are still the most common genre of criminal cases in the district and circuit courts.  Decriminalizing simple drug possession could also impact the amount of probation violations throughout the state. The standard conditions of probation include the prohibition of using illegal substances such as cocaine and heroin, and while a civil citation for possession of one of these drugs would not be a new law violation it would qualify as a technical violation. Defendants on unsupervised probation would likely not be subject to any type of violation for receiving a civil drug possession citation.