Articles Posted in Federal Crimes

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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.

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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.