Articles Posted in Federal Crimes

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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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Gun-evidence-box-300x225Federal prosecutors have a reputation for taking on the largest and most complex criminal cases, and recent news headlines have done nothing but support this reputation. In the last few months the feds have convicted one of the largest drug traffickers in history, placed the entire college and amateur basketball world on notice and publicly shamed Hollywood actors for engaging in university admissions scandals. It seems no case is too large, but when it comes to guns in Baltimore no case is too small either. The U.S. Attorney’s Office recently announced that a 24-year old Baltimore man pleaded guilty to unlicensed gun dealing and possession of a firearm by a convicted felon. This case was not tied to any other federal indictment, and the defendant was not part of any large-scale criminal conspiracy that the feds typically prosecute. There were no bank robbery, drug trafficking or gang related RICO claims against the defendant. The facts were straightforward and the case could have been prosecuted by the State of Maryland in the Baltimore City Circuit Court, yet the federal government decided take over.

This particular defendant, who had a prior conviction for first degree assault from 2015, pleaded guilty in Howard County to a separate gun related offense in the fall of 2017. Sentencing on the Howard County case was set for the winter of 2018 and the defendant was out of custody, presumably getting is affects in order before he began his sentence. Before the sentencing hearing, a violation of probation warrant from the original assault case became active, and Baltimore Police officers were sent to serve the warrant. Upon initiating a traffic stop the defendant fled from his vehicle and was arrested after a brief pursuit. A handgun was recovered along the path where the defendant allegedly fled. After this arrest law enforcement obtained a search warrant for the defendant’s social medial accounts and discovered numerous references to illegal gun sales, which prompted the feds to assume prosecution of the case. The 24-year old was sentenced on the two Howard County cases where he received the full backup time for the violation of probation and five years for the unlawful firearm possession case. He now faces up to 15 years in federal prison for the case where he recently pleaded guilty.

Regular readers of the Blog are well aware of federal government’s increased involvement with Baltimore City gun cases. It has become clear over the last decade that the local government simply cannot control violence in the city. It’s not just the murder rate, which is the highest among any major U.S. city but also the shootings, robberies, burglaries and carjackings that are all at critical levels. For the most part people just do not feel safe in Baltimore, and the population is declining as a result. The city is also having trouble hiring new police officer and retaining its own.

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heroin3-300x169Street level drug distribution cases in Maryland are typically handled in state criminal court, as the Feds have traditionally earmarked their manpower and money only for large and complex drug trafficking rings. Times appear to be changing though due to a substance that is quickly becoming public enemy number one, and is causing the feds to expand their role in street and mid level drug trade. Fentanyl has been around for decades after first arriving in the 1960’s as a popular and potent intravenous pain reliever. It then became popular in the 90’s as a method of treating chronic pain in the form of skin patches. The drug would slowly absorb into the bloodstream through the skin, as the patches could effectively deliver medication for hours. There were cases of fentanyl abuse back in the 90’s; those seeking a high realized that the patches could be opened, which provided access to larger quantities of the medicine that could be ingested at once. This form of fentanyl abuse was even discussed in a popular Carl Hiassen novel, though it never really made headlines. In 2005 to 2007 the drug began to appear on the DEA’s radar after causing over 1,000 overdose deaths in a two-year span, but still it hardly became a national story.

Fast-forward 10 years, and the narrative has changed drastically. In 2016 fentanyl passed oxycodone and heroin as the leading cause of overdose deaths in the country. Fentanyl is now right up there with heroin as priority number one for law enforcement officers, and it might just be alone at the top. The potency of the drug, which is 80-100 times greater than Morphine is to blame for the deadly statistics, but potency alone does not tell the full story. Fentanyl has always been extremely deadly and now it’s cheap and widely available. It is manufactured in labs overseas and after arrival in the U.S. is mixed or cut with other drugs such as heroin to reduce costs while not sacrificing effect. In most cases the users and even the street level dealers have no idea that their product is laced with fentanyl. It is truly a silent killer, and federal law enforcement is taking notice.

Two weeks ago the U.S. Attorney’s Office announced that an Anne Arundel County man was sentenced to almost five years in prison for possession with intent to distribute over 40 grams of fentanyl. Law enforcement executed a search warrant of the defendant’s residence back in 2017 and the search yielded more than 6,000 pills of the deadly narcotic as well as cash and Bitcoin mining equipment. The defendant apparently used the cryptocurrency to purchase 10,000 fentanyl pills on the dark web. In this press release following sentencing the U.S. Attorney announced that drug traffickers dealing in fentanyl face increased odds of federal prosecution, and that federal law enforcement will pursue those involved with dark web sales of the drug. Last week the federal prosecutor’s office in Baltimore announced yet another fentanyl related case, this time it was the indictment of six individuals in Hagerstown alleged to have been involved in the distribution of as much as two kilograms of the narcotic. Some of the Washington County defendants also face firearms charges after multiple loaded guns were seized. Two of the defendants have prior felony convictions that prohibit them from possessing firearms under state and federal laws. Under federal law possession of a firearm by a convicted felon or other prohibited individual can result in a ten-year minimum mandatory sentence, while the Maryland version carries a five-year minimum.

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police-224426__180Almost one year ago the Baltimore Police Department welcomed a new commissioner with high hopes he would be the one best suited to reverse the rising crime rate and restore the department’s reputation in the community. The department had become a nationwide embarrassment after numerous officers were convicted in severe cases of corruption, which included the armed robbery of citizens. There were also lingering allegations that the department unjustly targeted minority suspects, and also ignored service calls in the city’s most dangerous areas. At the time the Mayor was convinced her candidate for commissioner could begin to repair all the damage, but this vision came to an abrupt end four months later after the former top cop resigned amidst federal tax evasion charges. Recently the ex-commissioner pled guilty to those charges in a federal courthouse just a few blocks away from his former office atop police headquarters.

According to the Department of Justice the former commissioner pled guilty to three counts of failing to file individual federal tax returns in 2013, 2014 and 2015. Pursuant to the plea agreement the ex-cop also admitted to substantially reducing the amount of taxes withheld from his salary each year by claiming extra allowances and deductions. He went as far as claiming mortgage interest deductions and deductions for local property taxes when he didn’t actually have a mortgage or own any real property. He claimed business losses without owning any businesses, which all served to reduce the amount of taxes owed to the IRS and the State of Maryland. Additionally, the defendant did not file his 2011 and 2012 tax returns until 2014, and cooked the books when he did file in order to unlawfully save money. The former commissioner’s tax issues cost him his job back in May, and now they may cost him his freedom come March when the case is set for sentencing. Each of these charges carries a $100,000 fine and up to one year in prison. There will also be $67,587.72 in restitution that must be paid to the federal and state governments.

As a first time offender the former top cop will is unlikely to face a lengthy jail sentence for these misdemeanor offenses. On the other hand the judge will balk at any argument that the defendant simply “made a mistake” as the Mayor once characterized it. This was an ongoing course of conduct, and the continuous misrepresentations showed a certain degree of knowledge and intent. If the conduct was believed to have been a mistake or even straight ignorance the U.S. Attorney’s Office probably wouldn’t have charged the former police officer in criminal court. And even if the feds brought charges, if not for the recurring misrepresentations federal prosecutors likely would have entertained some sort of deferred prosecution agreement instead of going after three convictions.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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concertina-wire-1031773_960_720-200x300A former Prince George’s County delegate has been sentenced to four years in federal prison followed by three years of probation for engaging in bribery and conspiracy while in office.  The sentence was announced by federal prosecutors after a hearing at the U.S. District Court in Greenbelt more than six months after the former state lawmaker’s trial.  Back in March a federal jury found the ex-delegate guilty of four counts of bribery and one count of conspiracy for accepting thousands of dollars from various business owners in exchange for favorable treatment. At sentencing the presiding judge was informed that the shamed delegate also stole over $100,000 in campaign funds during his 14-year tenure as an elected official.

According to evidence presented by the government the former delegate conspired with members of the county liquor board and liquor store owners to vote favorably on issues that would increase the profitability of the store owners.  This included votes on proposals to establish additional permits to sell alcohol on Sundays, and for these favorable votes the former lawmaker received at least $19,000 in cash payments. In reaching a sentencing decision the judge not only considered evidence presented during the two-week trial, but also evidence of wrongdoing that the government presented at the sentencing hearing. The former lawmaker was not brought to trial on charges of theft or misconduct in office for stealing campaign funds, but it undoubtedly factored into the judges decision to sentence the delegate to four years in jail.  The former delegate and his legal team did not attempt to deny the government’s claim that he stole the funds, which likely means there was some sort of agreement between the parties beforehand.  The government probably felt it would not be necessary to bring the former lawmaker to trial twice, as long at the sentencing judge was aware and considered the additional misconduct.

While it may seem unfair to a layperson, prosecutors are permitted to introduce evidence of wrongdoing at sentencing that was not presented at trial. The traditional rules of evidence do not apply during sentencing hearings, which means nearly everything about the defendant is fair game. The prosecution is still bound by ethical rules preventing them from informing the court about rumors and unfounded accusations, but the defendant’s character is always tested at a sentencing hearing.  The flip side of the coin is that the defense is rarely limited as to what it can bring to the court’s attention during this phase of the proceeding.  Defendants may call numerous witnesses to testify on their behalf, and these witnesses are not subjected to traditional cross-examination.  While every judge operates differently, it is usually beneficial to have family, friends and other members of the community to testify for a defendant at sentencing.  Prosecutors spend the entire trial attacking the defendant, who most of the time is advised to exercise his or her 5th Amendment right to remain silent. Sentencing is generally the only time where the judge can learn more about the defendant as a person, rather than a criminal suspect.