Articles Posted in Heroin

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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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Heroin2-300x180Maryland law enforcement agencies have devoted millions of dollars to combat the state heroin epidemic but despite their efforts most agencies are still playing catch up when it comes to the infamous synthetic opioid known as fentanyl. The powerful substance is not a new commodity, though its popularity has skyrocketed over the last couple of years. Fentanyl is now so common that many street level narcotics dealers don’t even realize they’re selling it to customers looking to buy heroin. The availability of fentanyl is based on the most elementary economic principle of supply and demand. It began with the rebirth of heroin, which arguably was created by the nationwide crackdown of prescription narcotic abuse spearheaded by the DEA. Heroin became a viable replacement for the thousands of people that were once hooked on oxycodone and similar substances, but whom were not able to find a constant supply due to restrictions on pharmaceutical companies, pharmacies, and pain clinics.

While heroin became easier to obtain than powerful prescription narcotics, it is not a substance that’s native to the United States, and is still not readily available in large quantities. To fill the void, drug dealers began to realize that mixing small amounts of synthetic fentanyl would increase or keep the potency of their product while decreasing the amount of heroin necessary. In some cases synthetic fentanyl has completely replaced heroin on the streets, as most users cannot even tell the difference. Add to the equation that synthetic fentanyl is exponentially stronger than heroin, thus requiring smaller amounts per street level capsule, and the fact that there is an unlimited supply from illegal laboratories overseas, and it’s easy to see how fentanyl became an epidemic almost overnight. Demand is as high as ever and the supply keeps coming in from all corners of the globe, a reality that is not lost on law enforcement agencies in Maryland.

Police departments around have ramped up their efforts to take down fentanyl suppliers, and this past week the state police announced the arrest of a major supplier on the Eastern Shore. A 37-year old Salisbury man was taken into custody and charged with several CDS violations including possession of a large amount, manufacturing and possession with intent to distribute narcotics. After tracking the man for a few months police ultimately executed search warrants that yielded close to one pound of an especially potent fentanyl compound. Police also recovered marijuana and drug paraphernalia they say is consistent with distribution. The large amount charges were unaffected by the justice reinvestment act that became law in October, and still carry mandatory prison sentences upon conviction. The defendant is still being held at the Wicomico County Detention Center, and has a preliminary hearing set for early January in the district court. Prosecutors will no doubt try to make an example of this defendant, thus making a competent defense attorney extremely important.

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

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

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

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heroin3-300x169Police departments, lawmakers and even the governor have made combatting drug overdoses a major point of emphasis over the last few years. Many law enforcement agencies are training their officers in overdose recognition and equipping them with overdose prevention drugs. Police are now responding to the scene of a possible overdose with the mindset that their first call of duty could be saving a life rather than making an arrest. Lawmakers are tying to do their part as well by creating legislation aimed at punishing drug dealers whose product causes a death, and attempting to protect those who offer aid to overdose victims. The governor has always taken a hardline stance against heroin, highlighted by his recent declaration that opioid use is now in an official state of emergency warranting an additional $50 million in resources. Numerous citizen based community organizations have also joined forces with the government in this battle, but despite their best efforts the overdose numbers are heading in the wrong direction.

According to data recently released by the State Department of Health and Mental Hygiene the number of statewide deadly overdoses increased by a whopping 66% from 2015 to 2016. This puts last year’s total number of deaths at 2,089, which is the highest ever and triple the amount from 2010. About one third of these deaths occurred in Baltimore City, with the majority of the others occurring in Baltimore and Anne Arundel counties. Prince George’s County and Montgomery County rounded out the top five of this unfortunate statistic. Only two jurisdictions, Cecil County and St. Mary’s County reported declines in the number of deadly overdoses from 2015 to 2016.

The majority of victims were found with multiple drugs in their system, and not surprisingly the most common drugs present in the deceased were heroin and fentanyl. These two opioids have been public enemy number one in both urban and rural areas in the region for the last couple of years. The rise of fentanyl has been well documented but despite the awareness there are no signs that it even remotely close to being controlled. This deadly synthetic opioid, which is often mixed with or sold as heroin, contributed to over 1,100 Maryland deaths in 2016, up from 350 in 2015.   Alcohol, which continues to get a pass in due to its deep roots in American culture, contributed to around 30% of the deaths and cocaine to around a quarter. Prescription opioids such as morphine and oxycodone that were once a leading cause of overdoses were just the fourth leading cause last year in the state.

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pills_money-300x199The Maryland State Police recently announced the indictments of 18 defendants in a large drug conspiracy that spanned numerous counties and stretched into Delaware. The investigation began last fall state when police investigators received information that a male suspect was involved in a drug trafficking ring operating out of Queen Anne’s County. Narcotics detectives had reason to believe that this particular suspect, who lived in Kent County, assisted in the importation and distribution of large amounts of opioids including oxycodone, fentanyl, morphine, methadone and heroin throughout the state. Further investigation also revealed this suspect’s alleged involvement with another Kent County man in cocaine trafficking. Both male suspects were self employed, which further peaked the interests of law enforcement officers about the possibility of ongoing money laundering. As the investigation progressed, police officers from numerous jurisdictions including Talbot County and Anne Arundel County coordinated their efforts to develop more suspects in the case. Delaware State Police, Natural Resources Police, and local departments from Chestertown and Centreville also assisted, and the culmination of this investigation occurred this past week with the announcement of 18 arrests from indictments in the Circuit Court for Queen Anne’s County.

The two original suspects now face over 50 charges apiece, including multiple counts for conspiracy to distribute narcotics and CDS. According to the State Police report these two defendants allegedly conspired to import over 3.5 pounds of cocaine and 5000 pills, including 4000 of oxycodone and 50 pills each of morphine and fentanyl in just one 6-week period. The street value of these drugs is estimated at $130,000. Oddly, neither defendant faces any felony charges on these indictments; Maryland law classifies all conspiracy crimes as common law misdemeanors. But despite being misdemeanors, many of these counts carry 20-year maximum penalties, which state prosecutors will undoubtedly use as leverage to during plea negotiations. The extraordinarily high bails, one being $250,000 and the other being $350,000 also reflect the severity of these charges. There does not appear to be any physical evidence directly attributed to the two main defendants at this time (hence the conspiracy charges), though law enforcement did execute numerous search and seizure warrants and recovered a great deal of contraband. All told, there were 14 firearms, hundreds of pills, crack cocaine, marijuana and almost $100,000 dollars in U.S. currency recovered. Police also seized 15 vehicles that may be kept and then auctioned under state forfeiture laws.

The Blog will continue to follow this case as it progresses through the circuit court. It will be interesting to see whether there are any suppression issues raised in pre-trial proceedings, as it is unclear how police received all of their information. In any large-scale criminal investigation police often receive much of their intelligence from confidential informants, though CI’s alone will not suffice if the kingpins are careful. Prior coordinated law enforcement operations on the Eastern Shore have benefitted from the use of wiretap warrants, which could have sealed the fate of the defendants in this case.

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drugs-22237_640-300x198Lawmakers have made numerous attempts to curb the heroin epidemic in Maryland, and the governor has gone so far as to pronounce a state of emergency as overdose numbers continue to spike. Some Annapolis legislators considered passing a law that would allow the state to prosecute drug dealers under an enhanced 30-year jail penalty if their product caused a death, and we may see similar bills hit the state house floor in the future. State law enforcement is also joining in the fight, as Baltimore murder police are now beginning to investigate drug overdoses for potential links to dealers. The city police commissioner recently announced that five detectives working out of the homicide department will respond to both fatal and non-fatal overdoses. Baltimore is not the first jurisdiction to seek criminal evidence at overdose scenes, as Harford County narcotics detectives have already been showing up with first responder medics for the last two years. The Harford County Sheriff’s Office though was forced to scale this initiative back, as the sheer amount of overdoses proved too tough to manage.

State’s Attorney’s Offices around Maryland have also tried to do their part in furthering the agenda to combat the overdose epidemic. We previously posted about a defendant in Worcester County that was convicted and sentenced under state manslaughter law for selling heroin that ultimately resulted in a deadly overdose. Now another state prosecutor’s office has reported a manslaughter conviction in a CDS narcotics distribution case, and the defendant received the maximum penalty provided by the law. A Waldorf woman was just sentenced to 10 years in state prison in the Circuit Court for Charles County for selling fentanyl to man who later died of a drug overdose. The woman allegedly told the deceased buyer that her product was heroin when she knew that it was actually fentanyl, a far more powerful narcotic. This was reportedly the first time a defendant was convicted for manslaughter for selling drugs involved in an overdose in Charles County. The 34 year-old woman was also recently sentenced to 14 years in prison for another unrelated drug distribution charge, and was convicted and sentenced to probation on a third controlled dangerous substance case.

Law enforcement and state prosecutors may continue to seek enhanced penalties for drug dealers whose buyers overdose, but the deterrent effect of these measures is tough gauge. Harford County made a legitimate effort to seek out and prosecute dealers by investigating overdoses, but after two years their fatal and non-fatal overdose numbers remain largely unchanged. Efforts in Baltimore City may suffer the same fate, as the heroin epidemic is not under control in Maryland or anywhere else in America for that matter. In response to the public outcry government officials such as lawmakers, police chiefs and state’s attorneys tend to take the easy way out by announcing new initiatives to target suppliers. But a press release or two about a dealer serving extra time in prison gives these officials a false sense of accomplishment. The overdose numbers are not decreasing, and rather than targeting the endless supply of small time dealers officials should focus more on education, treatment and perhaps safe zones for users. While legalization and strict regulation of heroin would eliminate the type of street overdoses in the Worcester and Charles County cases, this is not a realistic solution at this point in time. The fact that legalization does not even warrant serious discussion is unfortunate, but there will come a time when government officials will have no choice but to consider it.

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police-224426__180The U.S. Attorney recently announced that seven Baltimore City police officers have been indicted on numerous felony charges, and the fallout has already extended beyond the cops’ alleged criminal acts. A federal grand jury returned the indictment back in February, but it was sealed until agents had the opportunity to execute search and arrest warrants. All seven have been arrested and remain in custody after a judge denied bail pending trial. While bail is typically granted for a defendant with no prior criminal record that is not facing a capital offense or violent life felony, prosecutors made the argument that these defendants, who served on the gun trace task force together, were especially dangerous to the public and possessed unique training that would make them flight risks. Defense lawyers for the accused countered by arguing that the charges were blown out of proportion, but the federal magistrate judge was not convinced and stated that no conditions of bail or supervised release would be enough to protect the public.

The charges returned by the grand jury were numerous, and included offenses such as wire fraud, robbery, conspiracy and extortion by a state or government employee. These charges were bundled in one racketeering indictment, which alleged the defendants stole money and drugs from civilians they detained or arrested and submitted fraudulent overtime reports. One of the defendants also allegedly posed as federal prosecutor in order to get more information out of a victim, which the officers subsequently burglarized and stole $20,000 from. Six of the defendants were also charged in a separate seven-count indictment for drug charges including conspiracy to distribute heroin and cocaine, and officer is charged with distribution of heroin resulting in death.

All seven of the accused officers face up to 20 years in prison for the racketeering and conspiracy charges. The six defendants in the drug indictment face even more exposure as antiquated federal drug laws still provide harsher punishments for those that sell drugs than for those that rob, steal from or assault others. Three defendants face conspiracy to distribute more than a kilogram of heroin, which carries a maximum penalty of life in prison with a 10-year mandatory minimum sentence. The other three are charged with selling slightly less heroin, but still face up to 40 years with a 5-year mandatory minimum. One of the soon to be ex cops faces an additional 20 years in jail for distributing heroin that results in death.

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Lawmakers are set to debate at least two new bills in the coming weeks aimed at combating skyrocketing narcotic overdose numbers. The first bill, which was introduced by delegates from Harford County and Anne Arundel County, would add a separate crime to the books targeting distributors of heroin and fentanyl. If House Bill 612 becomes law it would punish those found guilty of supplying the heroin or fentanyl that results in a deadly overdose. As it stands now the law would carry a 30-year maximum prison sentence, which could be imposed in addition to a sentence for drug distribution. There is an immunity clause within the statute that would apply to anyone who provides assistance for a person who is experiencing a medical emergency after using these two dangerous drugs. Any information given to medical providers by a person that supplied the heroin or fentanyl would be inadmissible, which in theory would serve to dissuade those from failing to render aid to an overdose victim out of fear of prosecution.

This new law could be effective provided that the law enforcement and state and local health officials get the word out about its existence. It may cause some drug dealers to think twice about selling heroin or fentanyl, which would be a win for lawmakers. As a practical matter though, the law probably would not have much of an effect in the courtroom. A person who is arrested for supplying illegal drugs that result in a deadly overdose already faces a 20-year maximum penalty for distribution of narcotics. And a judge would certainly take into account the fact that someone died as a result of the defendant’s conduct, making a lengthy prison sentence likely even without the new law. In addition, a state’s attorney could elect to charge the dealer with manslaughter and or reckless endangerment, which is a general crime that is defined as engaging in conduct that causes a substantial risk of death or serious injury to another. Manslaughter carries a 10-year maximum penalty while reckless endangerment carries 5 years, and these sentences could be consecutive to any sentence for drug distribution. Some jurisdictions such as Worcester County have already tried and convicted drug dealers for manslaughter, but House Bill 612 would achieve the same purpose while presenting less of a challenge to prosecutors.

In the coming weeks we may also see a law hit the State House floor in Annapolis that would limit narcotics prescriptions to a seven-day supply. There would definitely be exceptions for patients experiencing severe symptoms from certain terminal and long-term illnesses, and there may be other exceptions as well. This proposal, which came from the governor’s office, aims to limit the excess amount of prescription narcotics on the streets. Patients suffering from chronic pain are able to easily secure prescriptions for hundreds of narcotic pills per month, and many illegally sell some of their supply in order to fund their addiction. Others simply have a hard time keeping track of their medications and become victims to thefts by burglars, home workers, houseguests and even family members. Maryland would not be the first state to pass a law restricting opioid prescriptions, as at least seven other states already have strict laws on their books. The Blog will continue to follow the progress of these two proposals, and we may post a follow up article in the coming weeks, so stay tuned.

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police-850054_960_720-300x212Baltimore Police made fewer arrests in 2016 than in 2015 and homicide numbers were slightly lower, but think twice before assuming the city was a safer place last year. The reality is that despite a 7 percent decrease in total arrests and 26 fewer murders, Baltimore was actually more dangerous in 2016 than any year in recent memory. Last year saw a staggering number of shootings in a city with a steadily declining population. All told the police department reported 936 shootings at year’s end, a number that came in just 60 shy of New York City’s number of shootings. The catch being that NYC has 14 times the population of Baltimore.

About 1 out of every three shootings ended up being deadly, which kept the homicide number above 300 for the second year in a row and placed Baltimore among the most deadly cities in America for gun violence in 2015. Another statistic to ponder is the 39 percent clearance (case closed by arrest) rate for Baltimore murders. The 39 percent clearance rate is one of the lowest in the country, but thankfully is up from 31 percent in 2015. 86 percent of people shot last year ended up dying from their injuries. This number appears to be higher than most other urban areas in the country due to the popularity of larger caliber firearms, and the frightening trend of Baltimore shooters using more bullets and firing their weapons from closer range. Over half of the deadly shootings in 2016 occurred on city streets and public places such as parks, which has devastating consequences for many innocent bystanders. Just over 10 percent of homicide victims were killed in their cars and a similar number were in their homes. Most victims were males between the ages of 18 and 24.

In addition to shootings skyrocketing, drug overdoses are approaching historic levels. This is a trend throughout most of Maryland, but Baltimore is the epicenter. Full year-end statistics for 2016 drug overdoses are not available yet, but as of October 1 there were 481 overdoses compared to 291 for the first 9 months of 2015. Heroin is responsible for a large percentage of these deadly overdoses, though the infusion of fentanyl on the streets may be playing an increased role as well. It is estimated that over 20,000 people in Baltimore use heroin, which is over 3 percent of the population. Other areas within Maryland that saw large increases in drug overdoses include Anne Arundel County, Baltimore County, Harford County and Howard County. As we mentioned in a previous post, health and law enforcement officials in less populated areas such as Bel Air face the same concerns as those in the city. More heroin users and an influx of powerful new drugs such as fentanyl will continue to rock the smaller communities and urban areas alike. The Blog will continue to follow the crime and drug overdose statistics from 2016 as new data is made public, and we may post a follow up article in the near future so stay tuned.