Articles Posted in Federal Crimes

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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.

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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.