Articles Posted in Federal Crimes

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hammer-802296__480-300x225The U.S. Attorney’s Office recently announced that a Howard County physician was sentenced to 15 months of federal prison followed by 3 years of probation for passport fraud. The 50-year old doctor had been held without bail in a federal detention facility since his arrest back in May, meaning he will have to serve about one year of additional incarceration. He also may face deportation, as Homeland Security has initiated removal proceedings. According to his prior guilty plea, the doctor entered the United States from Ghana back in 1995 and applied for certification of his medical license in 1996. In 1998 the doctor married a U.S. citizen in Virginia, but his petition for citizenship was denied after immigration officials concluded the marriage was a sham and only for the purpose of gaining citizenship. Regardless, the doctor was granted a license to practice medicine in Maryland in 2001 and opened an office in Laurel. In 2007 and again in 2009 the doctor applied for United States passports for his minor children. On the applications for his minor children the doctor fraudulently stated that he was in fact a U.S. citizen who was born in North Carolina. In between applying for passports for his children, he applied for his own passport in 2008, again stating on the application and in subsequent interviews that he was born in North Carolina. The doctor even included a false affidavit from a family friend who claimed to have witnessed the doctor’s birth in America. Based on the information provided, the doctor was issued a U.S. passport in 2008.

For over 10 years the doctor used his fraudulent U.S. passport numerous times for international travel, and when it came time to renew the passport in 2018 he again told federal officials that he was born in North Carolina. The U.S. Department of State’s Diplomatic Security Service was the main law enforcement agency responsible for investigating this case, and executed a search warrant of the doctor’s home in Fulton. Investigators found several incriminating documents, which supported their suspicions including his Ghanaian passport, additional false affidavits and draft petitions for the Howard County Circuit Court that attempted to further perpetuate the scam.

There are a number of different passport crimes, and the feds treat all of them seriously. Forgery, false use of a passport and misuse of a passport are all classified as felonies, with maximum prison sentences ranging between 10 and 25 years. The 25-year penalty is reserved for the misuse of a passport to facilitate international terrorism. This means that any person who provided a fake passport to a terrorist or in some way assisted a terrorist in obtaining a passport could be on the hook for a 25-year sentence. A similar provision applies to drug trafficking crimes, but the maximum penalty is slightly less at 20 years. Any other type of passport misuse including making false statements on a passport application, altering or counterfeiting a passport, using a fake or altered passport or even using a passport that belongs to another person could trigger felony charges with a 10-year penalty.

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fire-1030751_1280-300x199In the summer of 2017 a dangerous multi-alarm fire broke out a popular local bar in Pasadena an hour after closing time. More than 75 firefighters responded to the scene and one suffered injuries trying to battle the blaze, which spread from the side of the building and into the attic. After an hour and a half of intense work Anne Arundel County firefighters were able to extinguish the fire, but not after it caused over $200,000 worth of damage and shuttered the bar indefinitely. The fire began around 3 a.m. on a Friday morning, and by Saturday law enforcement already had determined that the fire was likely set intentionally. The ATF immediately began an arson investigation, but charging a suspect for setting the fire probably took a little longer than they had expected.

Just over two years after the fire, federal law enforcement has announced the indictment of a 34-year old Pasadena man who was a regular patron at the bar. The defendant and his attorney have not made a statement, and law enforcement has not yet released details on a possible motive. The bar owner was interviewed by local news outlets and stated he was not surprised to learn the identity of the arsonist, but did no go into further detail just why he felt the way he did. Unlike the large majority of cases that are investigated by the state fire marshal and prosecuted in state court, this particular arson case will be prosecuted in federal court under a statute that carries a 5-year minimum mandatory prison sentence upon conviction. 18 U.S. Code 844 states that anyone who damages or destroys a building or other real property that is either owned by the United States, receives federal financial assistance or is a part of interstate commerce faces up to 20 years in prison with the aforementioned 5-year minimum. The U.S. Attorney’s Office did not specify how the building was tied to the federal government in any way, so the defendant must have been charged under the interstate commerce section of the statute. Interstate commerce has long since been a way for the federal government to intervene in matters traditionally reserved for state and local governments, but we’ll say no more there at the risk of this post turning into an Interstate Commerce Clause discussion.

Under Maryland law there is no minimum mandatory prison sentence for arson. The maximum penalty for arson in the first degree is 30 years, while the max penalty for arson in the second degree is 20 years. Second-degree arson is defined as intentionally and maliciously setting fire to a structure. First-degree arson requires the state to prove the defendant set fire to a dwelling (home) or an occupied structure. Both are serious felony crimes, but only first-degree arson is considered a violent crime. Arson is not as common as its misdemeanor counterpart, malicious burning. In Maryland malicious burning is defined as intentionally setting fire to another person’s property. The two degrees depend on the value of the property, with first-degree being over $1,000 and second-degree being under $1,000. First-degree malicious burning is a felony and carries a 5-year maximum penalty, while second degree carries an 18-month maximum jail sentence. Other common fire related crimes in Maryland include burning with the intent to defraud, which is a five-year misdemeanor and threat of arson, which is a ten-year misdemeanor.

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1398073_security_fence_4-300x200Last week two Maryland defendants were sentenced to more than a decade in federal prison for drug distribution charges that were far from run of the mill. The first case originated in Annapolis where the defendant, a 25-year old Howard County man, met up with a female buyer and sold her heroin. The next day the female buyer was found unresponsive in her Bowie apartment, and was pronounced dead on the scene after Prince George’s County paramedics were unable to revive her. Law enforcement arrived and recovered a dose of heroin, and in an effort to locate the suspected dealer took possession of the female’s cell phone. Sure enough the defendant sent a text just a short time later offering to sell her more heroin. Police officers responded to the text posing as the female victim, and made arrangements for another drug deal. Police conducted a traffic stop of the defendant’s vehicle near the pre-arranged meeting place for the drug transaction, and observed white powder on his pants as he stepped out of the car. Police also observed white powder and a small folded piece of paper on the floor by the passenger seat where the defendant had been sitting. There were three other individuals in the car including two minor children. Search in incident to arrest yielded the cell phone that had been used to set up the drug deals.

Rather that challenge the legality of the search and seizure, the defendant elected to admit to the allegations and plead guilty. There could have been a variety of legal arguments aimed at suppressing the physical evidence recovered from the defendant and the vehicle, but it is unlikely the defendant would have prevailed. The defendant did not have standing to challenge the seizure of the victim’s cell phone, and it is not illegal for the police to pose as a drug buyer and set up a totally fictitious deal. It is not clear exactly how the traffic stop transpired, but police likely had probable cause to arrest the defendant after observing the white powder on his pants, and/ or confirming that he was indeed the person who agreed to sell heroin to the victim. Once police recovered the defendant’s cell phone getting a signed warrant to search the phone would have been a foregone conclusion. In addition to pleading guilty to distribution of heroin, the plea also required the defendant to admit that a person died as a result of his role in selling the heroin. While the defendant did not plea to an enhanced crime for the sale of narcotics resulting in an overdose, it was made part of the permanent court record and undoubtedly factored in to sentencing considerations. The presiding judge at the Greenbelt federal courthouse would have also considered the defendant was not a first offender, as he has a robbery conviction from Baltimore County, as well as several other contacts with law enforcement.

Just one day after the defendant in the heroin case was learned his fate, another convicted drug dealer was sentenced 11 years in federal prison for possession with intent to distribute cocaine and marijuana and conspiracy to distribute more than 5 kilograms of cocaine. This case also spanned multiple jurisdictions, as police officers were called to investigate an armed robbery in Baltimore County. Upon identifying a suspect for the robbery, police executed a search warrant in Glen Burnie, and recovered large amounts of cocaine, cash, marijuana and two guns. This case did not end with a plea bargain, but rather went all the way to trial, where a federal jury convicted the defendant after 5 days of testimony. The original robbery and subsequent search occurred in 2016, but the defendant fled prior to his first trial date in November of 2018. He was a fugitive for more than a year before being captured and brought to trial this past spring.

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money-943782_960_720-300x225The United States Attorney’s Office for the District of Maryland recently announced the results of several federal law enforcement efforts aimed at targeting the most violent neighborhoods in Baltimore City. In the last month alone law enforcement closed investigations that resulted in the arrest of 90 defendants on serious federal crimes such as drug distribution and possession of a firearm in the furtherance of a crime. Multiple law enforcement agencies including the FBI, ATF, DEA, Homeland Security and the Baltimore Police Department participated in the investigations, which in addition to the 90 arrests yielded 51 firearms, almost $1 million in cash and kilogram amounts of drugs. The controlled substances seized were fentanyl, heroin, cocaine and marijuana, which are the most common street drugs of the times.

According to this release federal law enforcement separated their investigations by neighborhoods or territories. Police targeted a certain section of the city that includes a couple blocks or street corners, which they likely identified by following the buyers. Once they had the area in their sights law enforcement set up shop and began gathering evidence they ultimately needed to bring to federal prosecutors and then the grand jury. In this past release the U.S. Attorney’s Office revealed the investigations into four separate locations across the city. The first investigation in East Baltimore produced 25 arrests in total, with 10 being charged with illegal firearm possession by a prohibited person. A person can be prohibited for a number of reasons including prior felony convictions or even prior misdemeanor convictions. A separate West Baltimore investigation produced six drug distribution and firearm arrests, including one charge for possession of an illegal fully automatic firearm. In Southwest Baltimore another 38 defendants were charged for their involvement in a drug trafficking ring that had ties to Virginia, Pennsylvania and West Virginia. Finally, a Northwest Baltimore investigation produced 21 arrests for distribution of fentanyl and crack cocaine, and possession of firearms.

Each of these individual investigations falls under the umbrella initiative called Project Safe Neighborhoods or PSN, which is the federal government’s key crime reduction component in Baltimore. In the first half of 2019 the feds indicted 215 defendants compared to a total of 246 in the entire year of 2018. The U.S. Attorney’s Office anticipates this trend will continue and that they will charge 50% more defendants with violent crimes this year than in 2018. The top law enforcement officer in Maryland has stated repeatedly that reducing violent crime in Baltimore is priority number one, and if so the work will have to continue for years. The governor and the even the president have not been shy about their feelings about Baltimore, and this pressure is definitely felt by the law enforcement community in the city. The only way to appease the politicians and the public is to make arrests and secure convictions, but sometimes those that are not responsible for the violence become scapegoats for the actions of others.

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money-943782_960_720-300x225The U.S. Attorney’s Office for the District of Maryland recently announced that a federal jury came back with guilty verdicts for two Washington D.C. men charged with committing armed robberies in Prince George’s County. The verdict came after seven days of trial at the U.S. District Court in Greenbelt. According to evidence presented by the government at trial the two men robbed an auto repair business in Clinton, Maryland back in November of 2016, and then just four days later robbed a barbershop close to the D.C. line in Seat Pleasant. During the first robbery the men entered the shop brandishing firearms and ordered the two employees to the ground and stole their money. One employee was bound with zip ties while the other fought back and was shot. The shooting victim was severely injured and according to the government is now paralyzed. After committing the auto repair shop robbery the co-defendants fled in a stolen car and were not captured.

Four days later the same two co-defendants committed another armed robbery in nearby Seat Pleasant, and this time it didn’t end so well for the pair and their unidentified getaway driver. After robbing patrons at a barbershop in a similar manner as the auto repair shop, the co-defendants fled in a stolen minivan. Only this time, police spotted the getaway car at an intersection and attempted to make a stop. The three robbers tried to flee from police and bailed out of the van to attempt to run away on foot, but two were captured almost immediately and other was captured a short time later. Upon searching the stolen van police recovered two loaded 9 mm handguns, one of which had an obliterated serial number.

While one of the defendants was awaiting trial in jail he apparently urged multiple acquaintances to visit the barbershop and dissuade witnesses from testifying. These conversations were recorded and introduced into evidence by the government, which led to a conviction for witness tampering in addition to multiple other convictions including armed robbery, use of a firearm in a crime of violence and possession of a firearm by a convicted felon. Inmates that are incarcerated pending trial often make the mistake of assuming their jailhouse conversations are private, when in fact the government is always listening. These conversations are admissible in court, and are frequently used to convict defendants in cases where other evidence may be lacking. Defendants and their families should conduct their conversations as if the prosecutor or law enforcement were right there in the room, as there is no reasonable expectation of privacy in jail.

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concertina-wire-1031773_960_720-200x300The U.S. Attorney’s Office recently announced that a convicted narcotics dealer has been sentenced to 12 years in federal prison for his role in the importation and distribution of fentanyl. The 38-year old Wicomico County man will also be placed on 3 years of probation following his release from federal prison. According to his plea agreement law enforcement began investigating the defendant back in the fall of 2017 for his involvement in large-scale drug trafficking ring. Agencies including ICE, Homeland Security and the Maryland State Police eventually learned that defendant used fictitious names and email addresses to purchase fentanyl directly from China, and had the narcotics shipped to locations throughout the Eastern Shore. After it was mixed with various cutting agents, the defendant and his co-conspirators would package and sell the fentanyl in Baltimore and other locations in Maryland. Law enforcement used confidential informants to engage in a series of controlled buys, which yielded detailed information on how the fentanyl should be mixed and sold. At least two of these controlled buys took place in Baltimore City, and within a month police had obtained a search warrant for the defendant’s home in Salisbury.

Execution of the search warrant yielded over 400 grams of fentanyl and close to $20,000 in cash. Police also recovered drug paraphernalia including baggies, scales and a blender. Fortunately for the defendant law enforcement did not recover any firearms in the home, as this would have triggered a series of additional charges. On the other hand, law enforcement did learn that earlier in 2017 a woman had died of a fentanyl overdose in the same home where the search warrant was executed, and that the defendant was present when it happened. As part of his plea the defendant admitted that he had directed the overdose victim to go to the kitchen where the drugs were mixed, and upon cleaning the kitchen the woman had come into contact with a deadly dose of fentanyl. While the defendant was never charged for his role in the death of the woman, it almost certainly played a large part in the plea offer from the government, and the sentence handed down by the judge.

Readers of the Blog are well aware of the federal government’s involvement with Baltimore City gun and gang prosecutions, but guns and gangs are not all the feds are after. Heroin and fentanyl overdose deaths are at a critical level, and any large-scale narcotics trafficking, especially when it involves international shipments and cross state distribution is going to attract the attention of federal law enforcement. The feds will continue to utilize effective tools such as confidential informants and controlled buys in order to take down mid-level dealers, and lengthy prison sentences may await those who are prosecuted. The federal sentencing guidelines are stricter that the Maryland guidelines, and convicted defendants in federal cases are not eligible for parole as they are in Maryland state cases. Federal inmates typically serve over 80 percent of their sentence, while state inmates can be eligible for parole after only serving 25 percent of their time.

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pistol-1350484_1280-300x200Last week Baltimore joined nine other urban areas in the nation as the newest members of the National Public Safety Partnership. The NPP was created in 2017 to provide federal assistance to areas with sustained levels of violence that are far above the national average. In order to be eligible cities or counties must be in compliance with federal immigration requirements and must demonstrate a commitment to reducing crime. Baltimore was overlooked as a 2017 pilot site, and again in 2018, in favor of other notoriously dangerous cities such as Chicago, Detroit, Oakland, Camden and Newark. But in the program’s third year it became impossible to exclude Baltimore, which has sadly become the nation’s murder capital. The FBI established a recent murder rate for Baltimore of 56 per 100,000 residents, a staggering number considering the next highest is Detroit with 40 per 100,000 residents. Chicago has long been perceived as the U.S. murder capital, but in reality its per capita rate is less than half of Baltimore’s.

Being selected to join the NPP isn’t exactly a cause for celebration, but there is hope that the increased federal funding and involvement will curb the constantly escalating violence in the city. The Maryland governor has routinely voiced his discontent with rising crime in Baltimore and has directed funding and law enforcement officers to the city in order to have gun crimes and other violent offenses prosecuted in federal court under Project Exile. Conviction rates are higher and prison sentences longer in federal court compared to the city’s circuit court. In addition to Project Exile, a violent crime joint operations center with 200 dedicated officers from 16 different agencies is already in the works to put boots on the ground in the city’s most violent areas. Additionally, the state has pledged money to the Baltimore Police Department to increase signing bonuses for new recruits, in response to the department’s high turnover rate.

Though it has only been around since 2017, the NPP has already contributed to the reduction of crime in some of the pilot locations and the hope is that the same can be accomplished here in Maryland. The NPP provides a three-year commitment from the federal government and focuses on core areas of crime fighting. The first is federal partnerships, which basically means general cooperation between the city’s leadership and police department and the DOJ and federal law enforcement. The federal government will provide assistance in crime analysis, technology, gun violence, criminal justice collaboration, community engagement and investigations. The feds will also appoint a strategic liaison to serve as the line of communication between the city and the Justice Department, and conduct an annual training symposium for law enforcement members.

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wine-426466__480-300x225The U.S. Attorney’s Office for the District of Maryland recently announced that the owner of a high-end wine storage facility has pled guilty for orchestrating a multi year fraud scheme. The 54-year old Anne Arundel County man was the sole owner and operator of a company that provided storage and delivery service for rare and expensive bottles of wine. He charged a monthly fee for these services, but instead found it more lucrative to sell the bottles to unsuspecting third parties. According to the plea in 2013 the man began offering his customer’s wine bottles for sale to retailers and brokers across the country, including America’s wine capital of Napa, California. He used email and fax to communicate with potential buyers about his “inventory” and provided all the relevant information about the bottles and the asking price. After coming to a sales agreement the man packed and shipped the bottles to the buyer from his facility in Glen Burnie, and then accepted payment via check or wire transfer to his bank account. The proceeds were not shared with, or even disclosed to the rightful owners of the wine.

The scheme lasted for four years until 2017 and began to resemble a makeshift Ponzi, as all the while the defendant was collecting storage fees and accepting new bottles of wine from his current clients. Eventually the owners started asking questions, and the scheme came crashing down like schemes generally do. All told, the defendant stole between $550,000 and $1.5 million worth of his customer’s wine, most of who were private collectors and commercial establishments such as upscale restaurants. Not that it really factored into the case, but the defendant did not posses a license to sell wine within the State of Maryland or any other state, so he wasn’t actually a wine dealer (or a legitimate one at least). The actions described by the government in the guilty plea could have resulted in a number of theft and fraud related charges, but the lawyers decided on a plea to wire fraud. It appears that the government and the defense have agreed to a sentence of 18 months in prison, which will be imposed at a sentencing hearing down the road in the Baltimore federal courthouse.

Fact patterns such as this present an interesting discussion on theft laws, and since this is a Maryland criminal law Blog we’ll stick to offering commentary on that. In Maryland you don’t actually have to steal something to be charged with theft. Obtaining goods such as wine under false pretenses or with the intent to permanently or temporarily deprive the owner of the goods is sufficient for a theft charge. Even if the wine guy had every intention of restoring his customer’s collections he legally committed a theft the second he put them up for sale. There is no separate charge for obtaining goods by deception, as it falls under the general Maryland theft provision that differentiates based on value of the goods. One of the exceptions is failure to return a rental vehicle, which is a separate charge that carries a maximum penalty of 1 year in jail. Theft less than $100 is a misdemeanor punishable by up to 90 days in jail. Theft less than $1,500 but more than $100 is also a misdemeanor but carries a 6-month maximum. Anything over $1,500 is classified as a felony, with maximum penalties ranging from 5 years to 20 years for theft over $100,000.

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

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

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

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

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

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