Articles Posted in Federal Crimes

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Gun-evidence-box-300x225While the crime rate in Baltimore slightly decreased over the last year, violence in the city remains at an unacceptable level.  So far in 2018 there have been 130 homicides within the city limit, and hundreds more non-fatal shootings.  Just last weekend 5 people were killed and 7 more were shot in Baltimore, which lends credence to the fact that summer always brings a spike in crime to the area.  Whether it’s the long days or the warm nights, people spend more time out on the streets during summer, and the streets are where the large majority of violent crimes occur.  Baltimore Police has over 3,000 sworn police officers patrolling these streets, but the department has its limitations, especially in times of elevated violence.

For the last few years federal law enforcement agencies have increased their presence in Baltimore, and this summer more than ever the feds plan to lend a hand in taking down the most violent of city criminals.  The mayor and the police commissioner recently held a press conference announcing a “summer surge” of law enforcement collaboration designed to get ahead of the violence ushered in by the change in seasons.  As expected the press conference did not provide specifics on which federal agencies would be involved and exactly how they would contribute, but the announcement did say that the “worst of the worst” would be the target.  No federal agencies have made official statements regarding the collaboration, though the city’s DEA office did say a statement could be forthcoming and the U.S. Marshals Service reiterated their continued willingness to assist.

The collaboration hardly means that we will see uniformed FBI and DEA agents out on the streets of Baltimore.  Rather, their involvement will likely be in the form of targeted investigations, arrests and prosecutions of the city’s most dangerous residents.  The U.S. Attorney’s Office is already involved in the prosecution of gun crimes that would traditionally be handled in state court. Federal prosecutors routinely notify state prosecutors of their willingness to take over the prosecution of crimes such as possession of a firearm by a prohibited person under 18 U.S.C. 922(g) and the use of a firearm during a drug trafficking crime under 18 U.S.C. 924(g).  Under state law the maximum penalty for possession of a firearm by a convicted felon is 15 years with a 5-year mandatory sentence if the prior conviction and resulting sentence was within the last 5 years.  This same charge under federal law carries a 10-year mandatory sentence and a $250,000 fine.  Under state law possession of a firearm during a drug trafficking crime carries a mandatory 5-year sentence with a maximum 20-year sentence, while under federal law this offense carries a maximum penalty of life imprisonment with a mandatory minimum 5 years consecutive to any other offense.

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police-224426__180A federal jury recently found two former Baltimore Police officers guilty of robbery and racketeering after a two-week trial, and both now face up to 60 years in prison when they return to court for sentencing. The convicted officers join six others who already pled guilty over the last few months, which brings the total to eight corrupt cops that were part of a disbanded police unit dubbed as the gun trace task force. Four of the officers that previously pled guilty were called as witnesses for the government and testified against their former colleagues, no doubt in an attempt to secure lighter sentences for themselves. In addition, a former member of the task force that refused to engage in criminal activity and later transferred out of the unit testified for the government. The government called numerous victims, many of whom were admitted drug dealers who were robbed, beaten and threatened by the task force cops. Prosecutors also produced body camera footage and wire tapped conversations dating back to 2015 when the federal investigation first began after the DEA heard incriminating statements by an officer during a wiretapped conversation on a suspected drug dealer’s phone.

The case turned out to be a truly lopsided affair where the government was able to prove the corrupt cops stole cash, drugs and guns, falsified police reports and search warrant affidavits, lied about worknhours to inflate their salaries, and broke into houses of residents under the guise of legitimate law enforcement activity. The shamed officers were also accused of providing security for large drug deals in exchange for compensation and failing to provide aid to individuals that were hurt in a high-speed car crash that had no legitimate law enforcement purpose. One of the only reasonable arguments presented by the defendants were that the crimes amounted to theft and not robbery and racketeering, which had been alleged by federal investigators, but the jury thought otherwise and convicted each defendant of the highest charged offenses.

The trial may be over and the news trucks have left the Baltimore federal courthouse for the time being, but the effects of this scandal will be felt for years to come. The city already has a new police commissioner and the head of internal affairs has since been reassigned. Hundreds of prior convictions are subject to being overturned and the State’s Attorney’s Office is coming under scrutiny for prosecuting cases were the corrupt officers were involved. It has been alleged that the credibility of many of the task force cops had been called into question long before the federal investigation became public, but prosecutors pursued their cases anyway. In Annapolis one state delegate proposed that the entire police department should be disbanded and reformed as a new entity, which is exactly what took place in Camden, New Jersey. The mayor of Baltimore brushed off the call for disbanding the police department and maintains that the corruption was limited to a small number of few bad apples. While disbanding won’t happen at this point, it is telling just how bad the situation has become downtown. The justice department issued a scathing memo to the BPD back in 2016 and will continue to monitor the way BPD conducts business. If new allegations of corruption resurface you can bet that the federal government will be the first to step act.

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weed4-300x194Maryland already has some of the toughest gun laws in the country, and now the medical marijuana program may contribute to even tighter restrictions on gun ownership in the state. The Attorney General recently went on record stating his office would no longer sit back and let the states implement marijuana policy without the threat of federal government interference. This doesn’t necessarily mean (we hope) that the DEA is plotting to raid recreational and medical marijuana grow houses and dispensaries across the country, but there is certainly some cause for concern. Here in Maryland the medical marijuana program just became functional after years of work by thousands of people who put in time and millions of dollars for the little green plant to become available with a doctor’s approval. The program is not going anywhere, so patients and investors probably need not fear the worst. But there may have to be some sort of effort to keep the feds at bay, and a firearms crackdown could serve this purpose.

In order to appease the justice department, the Maryland State Police may become more involved in policing long standing federal policy that users of illegal drugs are prohibited from purchasing or receiving guns. The gun control act under 18 U.S.C 921 lays out certain prohibitions for receiving a firearm, and a violation of this federal statute could be punishable by up to 10 years in prison and a whopping $250,000 fine. Each person who purchases a firearm in Maryland is required to fill out a federal firearms transaction record, which is monitored by the ATF. One of the questions on the form asks whether the gun purchaser is an unlawful user of marijuana, narcotics, or any other controlled substances, and then in bold type states that “the use or possession of marijuana remains unlawful under Federal law regardless of whether it has been legalized or decriminalized for medicinal or recreational purposes in the state where you reside”. A person who answers yes to this question is unequivocally barred from purchasing a gun, and a Maryland medical marijuana card will do nothing to prevent the feds from filing charges.

It is difficult to enforce the provision of the gun control act that bars illegal drug users from purchasing handguns for obvious reasons. Gun shops are not administering polygraph tests to prospective buyers, and the ATF cannot show up at a recent gun purchaser’s door to administer a drug test. But in Maryland all medical marijuana patients are required to sign a release allowing the state health department to disclose the identity of cardholders to the state police. This would give the state police all the ammunition it needs to assist the feds in enforcing the federal gun control act. The worry is that state and local law enforcement may start arresting medical marijuana patients who purchase guns in order to set an example, and to appease the justice department now that its leader has taken a public stance against weed. For the near future Maryland residents will have to choose between purchasing or receiving a firearm and enrolling in the medical marijuana program. Even card holders who have yet to make their first purchase of medical pot should worry when buying a firearm, as the mere fact of their enrollment in the program could lead to major criminal liability. After all the progress we have made in last decade with respect to marijuana policy, the AG’s recent statements are a major step in the wrong direction. The only real solution is for Congress to get together and scrap federal laws making marijuana a controlled substance. We are confident this will happen eventually, but waiting on lawmakers to right a wrong is a frustrating proposition to say the least.

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handgun-231699_640-300x169The U.S. Attorney’s Office for the District of Maryland recently announced that a Prince George’s County man has been sentenced to more than four years in federal prison for illegal possession of a firearm. While a gun possession case may not seem like a newsworthy headline considering all the violent crime and police corruption currently taking place in the Baltimore metro area, this case is worthy of discussion because law enforcement never actually recovered a gun. Rather, state and federal officers built their case around a video they viewed on Twitter, which depicted the defendant in possession of a semi-automatic handgun.

Law enforcement used the Twitter video to obtain warrants to view additional social media accounts as well as search warrants for the defendants two known residences. The social media warrants yielded more pictures of the defendant with guns and the home search warrants produced a box of ammunition with the defendant’s fingerprints on it, but there was never an actual physical gun that police tied to the defendant. Nonetheless the defendant and counsel must have felt the government had enough evidence and struck a plea deal for the four-year sentence. Firearms have a broad meaning under federal law, and there is no requirement that the gun be working and operable at the time of the offense. Possession of anything readily converted to expel a projectile is all the government needs to prove, and detailed pictures or videos along with testimony from a firearms expert could be enough. The video in this case apparently showed a close up of the gun’s magazine and the bullets, and feds stated the defendant could be clearly seen loading the gun.

The defendant ultimately pled guilty to one count of possession of a firearm by a prohibited person. This offense is similar to the Maryland state law that prohibits certain individuals from possessing guns under the public safety code. There are nine categories of prohibited persons including convicted felons, fugitives, habitual drug users and those who have been involuntarily committed to a mental institution. Also included in the prohibition are persons who have been convicted of a misdemeanor crime of domestic violence or who are subject to a qualifying domestic protection order. The defendant was recently found guilty of second degree assault in the Ellicott City district court, and has numerous other offenses and prior protection orders that may have disqualified him from gun possession. Under federal law the penalty for illegal possession of a firearm is a maximum of ten years, but the actual sentence is typically based on the guidelines. Naturally those found guilty of this offense almost always have a criminal record that will contribute to a higher guideline score, though the bottom of the guidelines with no record is still more than a year in jail for this offense.

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police-224426__180A veteran Baltimore City Police officer pled guilty this week to a racketeering conspiracy that included as many as nine robberies, many of which took place at the homes of city residents. The Maryland U.S. Attorney’s Office announced the guilty plea after a hearing at the Baltimore federal courthouse. While the officer is not the first, and likely won’t be the last, to admit to robbing private citizens he is the highest-ranking officer implicated. The 59-year old sergeant from the Linthicum Heights area of Anne Arundel County has been on the force since 1996, and became officer-in-charge of the department’s gun trace task force in 2013. BPD formed the task force with the hopes of establishing a specialized unit more capable of solving firearm crimes, but the crimes committed by members of the task has outweighed any positive crime-fighting impacts.

The veteran officer admitted by way of his plea that he participated in nine robberies while employed by Baltimore Police, and that during the robberies he was armed with his service weapon. There is no indication the officer pled guilty to armed robbery, but these charges could have been dismissed pursuant to the plea agreement. Some of the robberies occurred as the officer and his co-conspirators carried out search warrants at the homes of individuals that were under investigation for drug distribution. The guilty officers often found large amounts of cash at these homes, and rather than submit the cash into evidence as required they would pocket most of the money, and then create false property receipts for the small remaining sums. Federal prosecutors even alleged that one of the robbery victims was shot and killed as a result of becoming indebted to a drug dealer after the officers stole $10,000 from his home.

Perhaps the most egregious part of the plea were the allegations made by federal prosecutors that the co-conspirators robbed citizens who were not even suspected of criminal activity. In order to cover up these robberies as lawful police activity this sergeant assisted in crafting fictitious arrest reports, incident reports and charging documents, that were sworn to and sent to judicial officers. Innocent citizens were basically terrorized by armed police officers in their homes and then jailed for the sole reason of covering up the theft of a few thousand dollars. The officer admitted to personally participating in the theft of over $90,000, but this money was likely divided up between other co-conspirators. Regardless, no amount of money would be worth the 20 years in prison the officer will face at a February sentencing hearing.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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keyboard-453795_1280-300x200A Baltimore County man was recently sentenced to 4 years in federal prison followed by 3 years of probation for his role in an Internet dating scam that cost numerous victims millions. The defendant, who hails from Owings Mills, pled guilty back in February to conspiracy to commit money laundering after he was indicted back in the spring of 2015 on numerous charges including wire fraud. According to the terms of the plea and the indictment the co-conspirators scoured numerous online dating websites in search of vulnerable victims, many of whom were elderly singles. The co-conspirators would then form romantic relationships with these unsuspecting victims over email, online chatting, and eventually phone calls. When the relationship had built up the co-conspirators would use fake stories to induce the victims to send money. These stories were elaborate and included tales of medical hardships that were bolstered by fake medical bills, tales of businesses on the verge of going bankrupt and non-existent foreign tax liens that needed to be settled.

The co-conspirators would receive money in numerous ways including wire transfers or bank deposits ranging from $1,700 to $30,000. Money was sent to drop accounts, which are designed to make it difficult to trace to the account holder (but clearly not too difficult for the FBI in this case). The money would not sit long in the drop accounts, as it was withdrawn and dispersed to the co-conspirators in a variety of ways in order to attempt to conceal the source of the funds. This is where the money laundering charges came from, as the co-conspirators would transfer money from the drop accounts to their own personal accounts online or they would write each other multiple checks for small amounts. Court documents also state that the defendants would purchase cashiers checks in order to conceal the source of all the income. All told the ten co-conspirators, most of whom are from the Laurel area of Prince George’s County, initially got away with scamming both male and female victims out of millions. Ultimately it was the attempt to funnel this money into usable accounts that brought this particular 26-year old defendant down.

The facts of this case do not clearly support a strong case for proving the existence of a theft scheme or a fraud scheme, as the victims appeared to hand over the money willingly, and often out of sympathy with no expectation of getting something in return. Regardless, the government always had the trump card of a money laundering charge in its back pocket. Even if federal prosecutors couldn’t prove fraud there was no bulletproof defense to the act of attempting to conceal the illegitimate funds flowing in from the dating scam. As they do in many conspiracy cases prosecutors likely followed the money straight to a conviction, and now it is the defendant that are going to have to pay up. This young defendant from Baltimore County has a hefty restitution payment of $375,000 bearing down on him once he is released from prison. Paying this restitution is likely a condition of probation, and if it is not paid the defendant could be back in court on a violation of probation. Failure to pay restitution might be a technical violation, but it is not a violation that judges take lightly. The Blog will continue to follow this case and other federal conspiracy cases, and may post a follow up article in the future so stay tuned.

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handgun-231699_640-300x169A federal judge recently sentenced a 24-year old Prince George’s County man to 16 years in prison after he pled guilty to a botched robbery that occurred back in September. The young man from Bowie was convicted of commercial robbery and brandishing and discharging a firearm during a crime of violence, which carries a mandatory minimum jail term. This means the defendant will not be eligible for parole for at least 5 years, and he will be on supervised probation when he does get released. The robbery took place at the University of Maryland University College Inn and Conference center located in Adelphi, just outside of College Park.

The plea agreement described a frantic few minutes that began with the armed defendant approaching a security guard at the inn and stating he was on the premises to make a delivery. As the two men walked toward the loading dock the defendant grabbed the security guard and a struggle ensued. During the struggle the defendant’s gun was discharged but did not strike anyone. Around the same time the masked and also armed co-conspirator entered building’s security office with his gun drawn and ordered all occupants to the ground while demanding money. Around the same time the security guard at the loading dock managed to break free from the defendant and made it back to the security office to seek help, only to come face to face with the gun brandishing co-conspirator. The co-conspirator shot in the direction of the guard and the bullet struck him in the arm and came to rest near his spine. Seconds later the defendant appeared at the security office and joined up with his co-conspirator to steal three safes. Both fled the scene, but one did not get very far.

Prince George’s County Police responded to the scene immediately and dispatched a K9 unit and a helicopter to locate the suspects. Eventually the police K9 located the defendant hiding in an area of overgrown trees and shrubs right near the loading dock where the doomed heist began. A search of the area turned up all three safes and a .40 caliber semi automatic pistol loaded with 7 rounds of ammunition. Forensic evidence revealed that the fingerprints taken from the gun’s magazine matched the defendant’s, and ballistics matched the .40 caliber shell casing with the gun that was found. Police later recovered clear surveillance footage of the unmasked defendant carrying out the robbery, and also recovered recorded PG county jail phone calls where the defendant admitted to firing his gun, but stated he did not hit anyone. Needless to say federal prosecutors had more than enough evidence at their disposal if the defendant had elected to reject the guilty plea and take his case to trial in the Greenbelt federal courthouse.

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heroinbust-300x198The U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Northern District of New York recently announced indictments of ten individuals for their roles in an East Coast heroin trafficking ring. Three of the defendants hail from Annapolis, which officials allege is where the heroin began the journey to its final destination in Schenectady, NY. After arriving in this suburb of Albany various New York based co-conspirators allegedly packaged the drugs and sold them in the Plattsburgh area, just a few hours drive from the Canadian border. The defendants vary in age, but each is under 35, and one was actually a state corrections officer until his arrest back in June. The three Maryland based defendants are all under the age of 30, with the youngest being just 19. This teenage defendant now faces between 5 and 40 years in federal prison, with the 5-year number representing the minimum mandatory sentence that must be imposed should he be convicted.

The other local co-conspirators include a 24-year old male who is facing a drug trafficking sentence of 10 years to life, and a 28-year old female who is facing up to 20 years for conspiracy to distribute narcotics. The 24-year old defendant is no stranger to the Maryland state judicial system, as he pled guilty to CDS possession with intent to distribute in Anne Arundel County back in 2012. His probation was violated shortly thereafter and an 18-month jail sentence followed. In addition to the federal indictment, the 24-year old is also set for an August trial date in Annapolis for numerous drug charges stemming from two separate state court cases. These charges are all drug related, and include distribution of narcotics and CDS possession of a large amount. The other Annapolis based defendants have relatively minor criminal records, which include two cases where each charged the other for assault. Prosecutors will likely end up dropping these cases, as the pair could assert their mutual 5th Amendment rights and choose not to testify. Regardless of what happens in these assault cases the defendants clearly have bigger issues to deal with up north.

The announcement by the Northern District of New York that a large heroin trafficking ring originated right here in Anne Arundel County came just as the governor announced 2018 allotments for the emergency opioid abuse funds. Last year the governor pledged $50 million to battle the record breaking heroin and fentanyl overdoses, and the money will be dispersed over the course of 5 years to various state and local agencies. The majority of the cash next year is going to inpatient treatment programs, naloxone supplies, public awareness platforms for opioid abuse and law enforcement efforts to dismantle drug trafficking rings. Baltimore City has been hit especially hard by drug overdoses, and the state has responded by allocating $2 million for a city crisis center. The Blog will continue to monitor this federal case and other state cases related to drug trafficking. We anticipate more drug busts making news headlines in the coming months as law enforcement agencies will be eager to show the governor the funding is being put to good use. However, it remains to be seen whether the emergency funding will begin to reverse the overdose numbers that are sadly trending in the wrong direction.