Articles Posted in Drug Arrests

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usa-1663297_1280Just three years ago United States Attorney’s Office for the District of Maryland made national headlines after announcing dozens of indictments for corruption and drug trafficking at the Baltimore City Jail. These indictments were the first major accomplishment of the Maryland Prison Task Force, a collaboration of law enforcement created in 2011 that includes the FBI, DPSCS, U.S. Marshal ‘s Service and the U.S. Attorney’s Office. The Task Force has remained active throughout Maryland’s jails, and recently made headlines for completing another massive corruption investigation, this time at the biggest prison facility in the state. The Eastern Correctional Institute or ECI is located in Somerset County on the Eastern shore, and houses over 3,000 inmates that have already been sentenced in court. It consists of two identical compounds with multiple housing units supervised by hundreds of correctional officers, and serviced by dozens of civilian contractors. With all the people moving in and around the facility it comes as no surprise that there would be contraband changing hands as well. It’s the scale of the conspiracy to move illegal goods such as drugs and cellphones within the facility that was far greater than expected.

The Department of Justice announced that a federal grand jury came back with indictments on 80 different individuals for their role in a massive conspiracy to move contraband throughout ECI for profit. The indictments charged 18 correctional officers, 35 inmates and 27 so called outside facilitators for their part in the conspiracy, which focused around bribing the prison officers to bring drugs, tobacco and phones to inmates. The officers allegedly would bring in packages containing contraband through prison security, and then deliver the cocaine, MDMA, marijuana, suboxone or other items to inmates who would pay using PayPal. Officers were paid as much as $500 each time they brought a package inside, and completed delivery in locations such as dining rooms, inmate’s cells or offices within the housing units.

Each defendant faces up to 20 years in federal prison for racketeering, a common charge used by the feds to severely punish those who take part in a large scale criminal conspiracy. The defendants also face felony drug distribution and possession with intent to distribute charges, which carries a 20-year sentence aw well. As of now, two of the corrections officers face additional time for the crime of depravation of rights under color of law for their role in facilitating the stabbing of two individuals who disrupted the flow of contraband. This charge exemplifies the type of public corruption that the DOJ and the FBI continue to focus on, and it gives their headlines a lot more teeth than just announcing a drug conspiracy. But really what this case boils down to is a massive law enforcement effort carried out by multiple agencies to stop inmates from getting high. This bust exposed nowhere near the level of criminal conduct of the bust at the Baltimore County Jail, as few jail conspiracies could ever rival that amount of corruption. Since the state created, and is paying for, a prison task force they will have to justify their existence and we should continue to see glorified jailhouse drug busts filed under the public corruption headline.

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maryland-280863_1280Holiday weekends motivate thousands to take to the highways to vacation or visit with friends and family. And in Maryland when the weather is warm, a large majority of these motorists travel between the Baltimore and D.C. metro areas and the Eastern Shore. Some stop in the smaller cities and towns along the way, but most end up in Ocean City or the Delaware beaches. Unfortunately there’s only one major thoroughfare between these two destinations, and the traffic can be a nightmare if you leave at the wrong time. Using nightmare to describe traffic might be a figure of speech, as Route 50 gridlock has become just part of the beachgoer experience. The real nightmares out on the highways are the serious car, motorcycle and truck accidents that injure or even claim the lives of those in search of a little sun and sand before heading back to work. Each year the Maryland State Police has made it a priority to do everything in their power to mitigate the increased risk of serious auto accidents that accompany the spring and summer holidays, and this past Labor Day weekend was no different.

In a recent press release State Police took credit for reducing crashes and keeping the public safe, thanks to various initiatives to post more troopers along the holiday driving routes. Initiatives such as Operation Showboat sent troopers posted in the Eastern Shore and the southern part of the state to specifically patrol the Route 50 stretch between the Chesapeake Bay Bridge and Ocean City. These troopers were targeting intoxicated drivers and anyone appearing to be operating in an unsafe manner. All told, MSP reported their troopers conducted over 9,000 traffic stops over the holiday week, and issued over 6,000 citations. There were 119 drunk driving arrests, including 10 arrested over the weekend by the much-publicized S.P.I.D.R.E team, a state police task force dedicated solely toward DUI and DWI enforcement. This task force took to the highways of Montgomery County, which has often been labeled as a drunk driving hotbed by law enforcement.

In addition to the thousands of citations and the 100 plus DUI arrests, the Labor Day traffic stops also produced 64 arrests unrelated to impaired driving. These unfortunate holiday motorists were probably pulled over for some minor traffic infraction (or nothing at all) and then arrested after a search yielded drugs or other contraband such as firearms. Police have made it a common practice to conduct traffic stops as a pretext to some other sort of investigation, and these stops have been ruled constitutional by the Supreme Court as long as there was reasonable suspicion to conduct the traffic stop in the first place. Along with the 64 arrests for new crimes, troopers also arrested 75 people who had outstanding arrest warrants. Law enforcement officers that locate wanted individuals do not even need probable cause to stop or detain, as the courts have held that you essentially lose many of your Fourth Amendment rights if you have a valid arrest warrant. This is true even if the arrest warrant was issued in error or never issued at all, as the only factor that matters is whether the officer reasonably believed you had a valid arrest warrant at the time of the seizure. Moral of this story is that if you have an arrest warrant or are traveling with a currently illegal substance such as marijuana, avoiding the main beach routes over the holidays might be in your best interest.

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thirteen-bags-of-marijuana-found-in-taxi-cabSix suspects have been charged with numerous drug crimes after local and federal police officers busted a large-scale marijuana distribution ring operating out of multiple quiet suburban neighborhoods. While the operation was based Montgomery County, where the charges have been filed, the six young men allegedly operated out of numerous storehouses for their product in other areas such as Baltimore County and even Virginia. According to police, the pot would be shipped in from California or Oregon and delivered to various homes in nondescript packages by the U.S. Postal Service. A network of dealers would then spread the product around, sometimes using Uber as their method of transportation. Montgomery County Police and the Postal Police worked together on the investigation, which yielded a seizure of upwards of 85 pounds of pot worth over $300,000 on the street. Although multiple people have been charged, investigators believe they have singled out the mastermind of the operation, a 22 year-old man who lives in Hagerstown.

The young man from Washington County was recently indicted on two felony drug trafficking counts, including the rarely used drug kingpin statute. This law was created to deter drug trafficking in Maryland, although it would be hard to argue it has been successful. The drug kingpin law targets those defendants that are alleged to be the organizers, financers or managers of a large conspiracy to bring controlled substances into the state for distribution. The penalties upon conviction are extremely harsh, and can in fact carry a stiffer sentence than violent crimes such as armed robbery and even second-degree murder. A drug kingpin defendant faces up to forty years in prison and an exorbitant one million dollar fine, but the real kicker is the 20-year minimum mandatory sentence that must be imposed upon conviction, and is not parole eligible. To put it into perspective, a person convicted of robbery with a firearm will spend 5 years in prison without being eligible for parole, while a typical second-degree murder convict could expect between 15 and 40 years of parole eligible incarceration. But under Maryland law a non-violent large-scale marijuana dealer faces an obscene two decades in prison, which unfortunately was not modified in the Justice Reinvestment Act that goes into effect this year.

Despite the fact that the young marijuana mogul faces an uphill battle in court, he will thankfully not likely have to contend with a 20-year minimum sentence. The alleged Hagerstown drug runner was also charged with importation of a controlled dangerous substance or CDS under Maryland criminal law 5-614. This statute covers trafficking large amounts of all types of drugs including marijuana, cocaine and heroin. Under this law, transporting between 5 and 45 kilograms of pot falls under the section with a 10-year maximum punishment. While it is not a guarantee, the state will probably use the kingpin statute as a deterrent to having prove the case at what will undoubtedly be a complex and time consuming trial. They will probably offer a plea to the transportation statute, which carries twice the prison exposure as the standard marijuana distribution/ possession with intent law, and does not carry a minimum mandatory sentence. This is clearly just an educated guess, but it would seem like reasonable plea offer if after going over the discovery it’s clear that the state can actually prove its case. The Blog will follow this case as is progresses through the circuit court in Rockville, and we may most a follow up article if necessary.

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annapolis-237078_960_720This past week the Governor’s Office in Annapolis announced that $3 million in state funds would be dedicated toward fighting the heroin epidemic in Maryland. Nearly a third of that money will provide funding for newly assigned heroin coordinators in law enforcement agencies across all regions of the state. The other $2 million plus will continue to fund the Safe Streets Initiative, a criminal offender based information sharing system that debuted in Anne Arundel County in 2008, and later expanded to Salisbury in 2010. There are now nine jurisdictions taking part in the initiative, which will receive tax dollars specifically dedicated toward the treatment and recovery of drug offenders. Five of the safe streets jurisdictions will acquire funds to hire peer recovery specialists.

The increased funding and the hiring of treatment specialists fall in line with the recommendations of the Heroin & Opioid Emergency Task Force, an initiative championed by Governor Larry Hogan. The governor has taken a hardline stance on the heroin epidemic in Maryland since being elected, and one of his first moves was to sign an executive order establishing the task force back in January of 2015. The eleven-member task force released 33 recommendations this past December, and now state officials are mobilizing to make these recommendations reality. In addition to expanding treatment and recovery options, the funds will also support the designation of the Baltimore-Washington High Intensity Drug Trafficking Area as the epicenter of the war on heroin. All drug related intelligence gathered by law enforcement around the state will flow through the metro area headquarters where it will be indexed and analyzed. In theory this will facilitate the tracking and eventual arrest of suspected drug traffickers and street level dealers. It remains to be seen whether the money would be better spend by simply hiring more qualified police officers, and encouraging them to communicate with other departments.

The governor’s war on heroin certainly creates buzz and headlines, and gives the impression that the state is at least trying to curb the heroin epidemic. But there are still far more headlines about drug overdoses and drug busts. Just days ago a man died from an apparent drug overdose at a Worcester County hospital after being taken into custody by Ocean City police. He was arrested on CDS possession with intent to distribute charges after police located 1,500 packets of heroin in his vehicle. Headlines like these have become so commonplace that it seems like the state’s war on heroin is going in the wrong direction. And as the federal government can attest to, the war on drugs is simply a never ending battle, and adding more cops and making more arrests is arguably not the correct path to victory. It could be even be argued that arresting drug dealers just keeps the price of heroin high, thus making it more attractive for others to start dealing.

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cannabis-1418339__340The Maryland State Police recently announced one of the largest highway pot busts in years after two young men from Philadelphia were caught driving with over 900 pounds of marijuana. The bust began as a routine traffic stop of a U-Haul van for an alleged unsafe lane change on the northbound side of I95 near Elkton. As the trooper was conducting the traffic stop he apparently noticed suspicious signs of criminal activity, and then brought out his drug sniffing K9 to assist. The dog alerted the trooper to the presence of a controlled substance, which led to a search of the van. Considering the amount of pot that was recovered it probably didn’t take long for the trooper to locate the stash and then arrest the two unlucky travelers. As it stands now, both occupants of the van are charged with four separate criminal charges, three of which are felonies. To add insult to injury, the driver was also cited for a $90 moving violation for his alleged unsafe lane change.

The two men are charged with possession of marijuana, but this is undoubtedly the least of their troubles. Each also faces possession with intent to distribute, which carries a maximum penalty of 5 years in prison, and one count of large amount controlled dangerous substance possession. Upon conviction, this charge has a minimum sentence of 5 years, and no portion of the sentence can be suspended. While the Justice Reinvestment Act will soon phase out minimum mandatory sentences for many drug crimes, the 5-year large amount sentence will remain law. This statute includes almost every street drug, including cocaine, meth, and opioids such as heroin and oxycodone. The amount required for a “large amount” charge varies by drug, but for marijuana all that is required is 50 pounds or more.

The fourth and final charge that the two young men are facing falls under a seldom used law that makes it illegal to import certain controlled substances into the state. This offense makes it a felony punishable by up to 25 years in prison to bring large amounts of drugs into Maryland. The cutoff for marijuana is oddly 45 kilograms, which is about twice the amount required under the large amount statute. Importing between 5 and 45 kilograms of pot triggers a lower maximum jail sentence of ten years. This offense is relatively rare for state court because multi state drug trafficking cases are often handled by federal law enforcement such as the DEA. In this specific case though there was no ongoing investigation, but rather the trooper basically just stumbled upon this mega stash of pot. This offense can also create issues for the prosecution, as it is an essential element of the charge to actually prove the defendants brought drugs in from beyond the border. In this case the state will need to prove more than just the fact that the defendants are from Pennsylvania, or that the van was rented in another state.

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marijuana-673845_640Howard County may not be known for high volume drug trafficking, but a recent marijuana bust near Columbia captured state headlines last week for its shear size. Police are reporting that the 600 pot plants found in a four bedroom Glenelg home set the record for the county’s largest illegal marijuana grow operation, and two suspects were arrested and charged with multiple felonies. The male and female defendants were apparently renting the home, which was auctioned off last month. Upon visiting the recently acquired property, the new owner saw a suspicious van in the driveway and called police. Cops then allegedly smelled a strong odor of marijuana and observed other suspicious signs at the property, and they applied for a search warrant.   In addition to the plants, the search revealed a sophisticated growing operation with ventilation, hydroponics and lighting systems. Police also found 8 pounds of packaged marijuana, THC wax, $75,000 cash, heroin, prescription pills, cocaine and a firearm. The estimated street value of the seized plants was over $270,000.

The female defendant was found in the home at the time of the search, and was arrested that day. She was charged with two felonies including manufacturing CDS and possession with the intent to deliver. Each of these charges carries a five-year maximum jail sentence because the drug at issue was marijuana, and not a narcotic such as heroin. The female defendant is also charged with two counts of possession, most likely for the heroin, pills or cocaine that was found. These charges are misdemeanors that carry a four-year maximum sentence. Currently the female’s case is set for a preliminary hearing on June 3rd in the Ellicott City District Court, but the case will likely be indicted and sent straight to the Circuit Court for Howard County.

thirteen-bags-of-marijuana-found-in-taxi-cabPolice did not arrest the male defendant at the grow house, but found and arrested him shortly thereafter. He was charged with the same two felony counts plus an additional felony count for possession of a firearm in a drug trafficking crime. This charge carries a mandatory minimum prison sentence of five years and a maximum sentence of 20 years, and in this case was likely filed due to police finding a shotgun at the house that they traced back to male defendant. Section 5.621 of the Maryland criminal code applies to anyone who possesses a firearm during the commission of a drug felony. It serves as an enhancement, and is part of the state’s concerted effort to jail defendants that commit crimes with guns. Unfortunately police officers and even prosecutors often wrongfully incorporate this particular statute. The appellate courts have repeatedly said that the firearm at issue must have some sort of nexus or connection to the drug felony. In other words the government must prove that the gun served a purpose in furthering the crimes, which in this case were manufacturing and possession with intent. If the defendant was not dealing marijuana out of the rental house, and the gun was simply there with his other possessions then there would be no nexus to the drug crimes. On the other hand, if the defendant kept the gun as protection during his illicit transactions then there would be a nexus.

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syringe-866550_960_720This past November Worcester County Police responded to a residence in Berlin to assist EMS with an apparent drug overdose. Medical professionals were unable to revive the 50 year-old man, but for the police officers their work was just beginning. Within hours officers were able to locate a suspect who had supplied the lethal heroin to the deceased, and fully blown investigation ensued. Officers first discovered the suspect after searching the recent call list of the deceased’s cell phone, and actually had a conversation with he suspect that same night. According to police records a 26 year-old man from Berlin first admitted to driving the deceased to Delaware to purchase the heroin, but further investigation revealed that the young Eastern Shore man actually delivered the drugs to the home of the deceased, and witnessed him overdose. This information was uncovered though an executed search warrant of the suspect’s phone that revealed text message conversations with the deceased, and the suspect was arrested shortly thereafter on charges of narcotics distribution and possession not marijuana.

While distribution of narcotics is a serious felony with a 20-year maximum jail sentence, prosecutors were not satisfied that this charge fully accounted for the defendant’s conduct.   The State’s Attorney sought additional charges of manslaughter and reckless endangerment to incorporate criminal responsibility for the defendant in the death of the 50 year-old man. A grand jury agreed and returned an indictment for these two counts plus the original two drug counts. No plea agreement was reached, and the defendant gave up his right to a jury trial in favor of bench trial the Snow Hill Circuit Court. It didn’t take long for the judge to find the defendant guilty on all counts, and now he awaits sentencing in July. In addition to the 20-year max for distribution, the defendant also faces a 10-year sentence for manslaughter, 5 years for reckless endangerment and 4 years for possession. The defendant has multiple prior convictions for assault, which the judge will surely take into account at the sentencing hearing.

Charging an alleged drug dealer for manslaughter when a buyer overdoses is not a new concept nationwide or in Maryland, but that is not to say it is a common practice.   Some states have specific statutes that enhance drug crimes when a buyer is injured or dies, but it is still rare to see a manslaughter conviction in a drug case. In this case though, police and prosecutors had ample evidence (most provided by the defendant himself) that the defendant directly supplied the heroin to the deceased and that he remained with the deceased while he took the deadly dose. To sustain a conviction for manslaughter in Maryland the state must prove the defendant committed an unlawful act that killed someone during the course of that act. The cell phone evidence gathered by police combined with the statements all but sealed the defendant’s fate.

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drugs-908533_960_720The United States Attorney for Baltimore recently announced the indictments of four alleged drug traffickers that were arrested a week ago in Anne Arundel County by the DEA. This bust is one of the largest in the area over the past year, and it netted the government over $2.4 million cash and 30 plus kilograms of cocaine. The investigation began back in August when law enforcement officers received a tip about a possible drug operation using a Baltimore County trucking business as a cover up. Agents responded to the location of the suspected shell business in Essex to find that the trucking company had been evicted. Law enforcement later learned that the business had moved to Linthicum Heights, which is where officers began to conduct surveillance. After observing the four suspects numerous times the DEA decided to make their move, and stopped one of the men as he drove off the property in a pickup truck. Agents had observed that same truck enter and then exit the warehouse in a matter of minutes, thus peaking suspicion of surreptitious and possibly illegal activity. The DEA had a drug-sniffing dog on hand to check the truck as soon as the stop began, and the dog probably had little trouble identifying the alleged presence of 31 kilograms of cocaine. Cash and packing materials for the drugs were later found at the home of one of the suspects after law enforcement executed search warrants.

Traffic stops are a common way to initiate contact with a suspected drug trafficker because the law affords police a great deal of latitude in how these stops are conducted. This is true even if cops could care less about the actual traffic infraction in what is called a pretextual stop (unfortunately they also often make up an infraction), and it’s true even when cops have a K9 unit on hand as soon as the so-called traffic stop begins. Traffic stops are safer for the police because they can usually see everything going on in the car as opposed to conducting a raid on someone’s house, and these stops also allow police to maintain the element of surprise. Most defendants believe they are simply going to receive a traffic citation right up until the second the cuffs come out. Additionally the automobile exception line of appellate cases gives police freedoms that they do not enjoy when searching a house, place of work, or a person.

The four men now face felony charges for possession and distribution of cocaine as well as counts of criminal conspiracy in the federal court in downtown Baltimore. While the Maryland legislature has just passed a bill effectively doing away with mandatory minimum penalties for drug distribution, the Department of Justice has not shown a willingness to do the same in federal cases. The federal drug trafficking penalties currently include a five-year minimum sentence for trafficking between 500 grams and 5 kilograms of cocaine and between 100 grams and 1 kilogram of heroin.  Anything over these amounts triggers a ten year mandatory prison sentence, which is what these defendants face based on the 31 kilograms seized.

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concertina-wire-1031773_960_720The Justice Reinvestment Act is advancing in the House after the Judiciary Committee approved it by a wide margin last week. The bill is heading toward a full House vote, but lawmakers will likely be required to compromise on a few key issues before the bill ultimately gains approval from the General Assembly. The Senate and House versions differ slightly, and these differences must be hammered out before the bill is presented to the governor. The House version includes a racketeering provision designed to target gang related drug dealers, eliminates jail sentences for driving on a suspended license, and unlike the Senate version does not attempt to lengthen the maximum sentences for second degree murder and kidnapping. The overall tenor of the bill though is shared by both chambers of the Maryland Legislature; the House and the Senate share a strong desire to reduce the prison population and reinvest savings toward crime prevention through education and treatment. In our last post we outlined one of the four avenues lawmakers will use to achieve their stated goal and in this post we’ll touch on the other three.

Lowering maximum sentences for numerous non-violent offenses as we previously discussed is a step in the right direction, but alone will not reduce the number of prison inmates. To supplement lower maximum sentences the bill also focuses on modifying the parole process, streamlining violation of probation procedures, and eliminating mandatory minimum sentences for many drug violations. When a judge sentences a defendant to state prison time in a case not involving a minimum mandatory sentence he or she will not actually spend the entire sentence in prison. Maryland is a parole state, meaning that after serving a certain amount of the sentence (sometimes as low as 25%) almost all defendants are eligible for release under certain conditions. But the parole process can be defined as arbitrary and haphazard, and many times defendants who are of no danger and have been sufficiently punished remain in prison, while others are released too early. The bill attempts to implement a more refined and logical parole process in an attempt to find an appropriate actual sentence served for each different defendant. Under the Act all defendants will undergo a risk and assessment analysis promptly after sentencing. A larger array of educational and reentry programs will be offered once in custody, and the potential for monthly sentence deductions will be expanded. The goal is to keep offenders in custody for no longer than necessary, and the Act represents a major move toward this goal.

The Act also takes unprecedented measures to streamline procedure of probation violations. Hundreds if not thousands of defendants are sent to prison or back to county jail each year for technical probation violations. These technical violations can include missing and appointment, changing an address without approval, or not completing a drug class. Technical violations do not include new arrests or absconding from probation. Under the bill, defendant can be sentenced up to 15 days for a first technical violation of probation, 30 for a second, and 45 for a third violation. Fourth or non-technical violations may result in the defendant serving to the entire balance of the sentence. A judge may depart from these sentencing guidelines at anytime if he or she makes a finding that the defendant poses a risk to the public, or a victim or witness. If these probation violation changes are implemented both the prison system and the court system would reap the probable benefits of less inmates and lower caseloads.

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concertina-wire-1031773_960_720Lawmakers in both houses and from both sides of the aisle are currently working on one of the most comprehensive criminal justice reform bills in recent memory. Senate Bill 1005, known at the Justice Reinvestment Act, is an 84-page behemoth of a bill that aims to revamp multiple areas of the current criminal justice system. The act’s two major areas of focus are reducing the state prison population, and then establishing specific avenues for allocating the savings. Maryland taxpayers are currently picking up a $1.3 billion yearly corrections tab, which is astonishingly high as a result of roughly 20,000 people being incarcerated in state and local jail facilities at any given time. For years lawmakers have wrestled with the conundrum of reducing the number of inmates without reducing the safety of our streets, and now it appears as if a reasonable solution is in the works.

Lawmakers want to reduce the prison population by up to 14 percent over the next ten years, thus saving almost $250 million per year. Since 14% of criminals are not simply going to take the next 10 years off, the only way to reduce the prison population is to release some offenders and to not incarcerate others in the first place. Maryland has not devised a revolutionary and unique system of selecting which offenders to release, but rather it is joining the federal government and numerous other states with the goal of reforming criminal drug laws. The bottom line is that lawmakers are finally realizing that society is not best served by spending $100,000+ per year to incarcerate a non-violent drug offender. We can lower maximum jail sentences and eliminate minimum mandatory prison sentences in non-violent drug cases without putting the public in harms way, and we can save millions in the process.

The Justice Reinvestment Act touches on three main ways to accomplish this, including lowering the maximum punishment for possession of narcotics such as heroin and oxycodone and stimulants such as cocaine, from four years to one year for a first offense. Second, the act and other legislation that is already in the works will also effectively do away with ineffective minimum mandatory prison sentences for certain drug felonies such as possession with intent to deliver, manufacturing, and distribution. Repeat drug felony offenders currently face parole ineligible 10-year mandatory sentences, while repeat offenders of violent crimes such as assault and robbery face no increased penalties. The contrast is simply illogical. Finally the act will place limitations on the penalties for certain violations of probation, which especially in the case of drug charges are responsible for hundreds of lengthy prison sentences each year. Reducing penalties for technical violations, or violations that do not involve additional criminal law violations, are the main focus of the act. There is language that would keep litigation of technical violations out of court, and in the alternative would allow probation officers to levy their own punishments. These changes will probably be met with some pushback, and may invoke constitutional law challenges, but it is hard to argue that technical violations are often blown out of proportion in court.