Articles Posted in Maryland Legislature

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annapolis-237078_960_720-300x195The 2019 Maryland legislative session has come to an end, and unlike previous years where marijuana was decriminalized or mandatory prison sentences for certain drug offenses were effectively discarded, there will be no drastic changes to the criminal code come October. While not headline makers, lawmakers did successfully address some minor offenses such as gambling and possession of alcohol, and changes are on the horizon. We previously wrote about a bill that proposed to decriminalize small time gambling, which in our opinion was long overdue. With state casinos booming, and sports betting on the verge of becoming legal in Maryland it really makes zero sense to impose criminal sanctions on citizens engaged in unlawful gambling. Both houses agreed and passed the bill that will now punish illegal gamblers with a civil citation and a fine, rather than a potential misdemeanor conviction and jail time. Anyone caught running an unauthorized casino or taking bets as a bookie still faces criminal liability, though lawmakers did away with the archaic 6-month mandatory minimum penalty. The maximum fine for civil gambling offenses will be $500 if less than $100 is at stake or $1,000 if more than $100 is at stake. Illegal gambling cases were not common to begin with, but now police will be even more motivated to look the other way.

Lawmakers also passed legislation that will make consumption of alcohol in public and possession of an open container a civil infraction rather than a criminal misdemeanor. The $100 fine will remain the same, but offenders no longer run the risk of a criminal conviction for drinking a beer, wine or liquor in public. This bill does not directly impact citations for minors in possession of alcohol, which will remain a civil infraction with a potential $500 fine for a first offense. Each of these civil infractions may be prosecuted by the local State’s Attorney’s Office, which is generally a good thing. The SAO has the ability to offer some sort of pre-trial diversion such as community service or alcohol education in exchange for a dismissal, while a district court judge has no such ability. The passage of this bill may affect the way open container violations are handled in local jurisdictions such as Ocean City. Previously public consumption or possession of an open container of alcohol was punishable by jail time in Ocean City, and police officers of this popular summer destination had the authority to arrest those, who for example were leaving Secrets with a drink in their hand. The Blog will pay attention to the local code to see if the city counsel is forced to make any changes to the existing laws regarding alcohol.

There was a lot of talk before the 2019 session began that the threshold of criminal possession of marijuana would be raised from 10 grams to one ounce (28 grams) but this change may not be on the immediate horizon. In addition to raising the lawful possession threshold, a Montgomery County lawmaker also proposed to allow adults over the age of 21 the right to use marijuana, to possess up to 5 grams of marijuana concentrates, and to cultivate up to 6 marijuana plants in their homes. The proposal was in the form of a constitutional amendment that would be put to a vote in this year’s general election.

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e-cigarette-1881957__480-300x200While marijuana laws have changed drastically over the last several years the legislature has largely avoided the subject of tobacco. The state has regularly raised taxes on cigarettes and other tobacco products in order to dissuade use, but no major tobacco legislation has crossed the governor’s desk in years. That will change this summer, when the governor will be presented with a bill that effectively raises the age of lawful tobacco use from 18 to 21. The proposed law will modify section 10-107 of the Maryland criminal code, which currently makes it illegal to sell or distribute tobacco products to a minor under the age of 18. Under the new law a person could be subject to criminal charges for selling, or otherwise distributing tobacco products to anyone under the age of 21, unless the person is a member of the United States Military. There is no current proposal to address possession of tobacco products for those under the age of 21, but such legislation could be proposed in the future. If the legislature decides to address underage possession of tobacco it would probably be in the form of a civil citation, much like the current offense for underage possession of alcohol.

It is safe to say that traditional cigarette smoking was not the main target of this piece of legislation, but rather vaping that was the objective. The popularity of vaping has spiked dramatically over the past few years due to the technological advances of electronic cigarettes. These devices are discrete and easy to use, and can be charged via USB outlets that are the used with almost every cell phone. Electronic cigarette smoke can contain high amounts of nicotine and offer the smoking sensation without the lingering stale smell, and cartridges come in hundreds of different flavors. The CDC recently reported that more than 20 percent of high school students have tried vaping in the last month, compared to about 1.5 percent in 2011. Additional studies have shown that raising the tobacco use to 21 could dramatically reduce e-cigarette use among high school students, and Maryland lawmakers have taken notice.

The new tobacco law will likely go into effect in October, and enforcement should be expected immediately. Shop owners and employees could face a misdemeanor conviction and hefty fines for violating the new law. A first offense carries a maximum penalty of a $300 fine, but repeat offenders face a $1,000 fine after that. A third offense within 2 years and any subsequent offense after that carries a massive $3,000 fine, which will surely cause tobacco dealers to think twice before selling. This offense is not a strict liability crime, as lawmakers included a provision that allows for an affirmative defense. If upon purchase, a valid form of identification was presented that positively identified the purchaser as over the age of 21 then the seller may not be found guilty of violating the statute. This seems to protect sellers in fake ID cases, as a store clerk should not reasonably be expected to be an expert in facial recognition. Under the law, sellers would be required to card anyone who appears under the age of 30, and businesses would have to present new signage that states nobody under the age of 21 is permitted to purchase tobacco products. Electronic cigarettes and other smoking devices are considered tobacco products, so the new law would likely prevent anyone under the age of 21 from making a purchase at or even entering the local smoke shop.

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play-593207_1280-300x199As it became more likely that medical marijuana would soon be legal in Maryland, lawmakers simultaneously realized they needed to modify the criminal laws regarding marijuana possession. Amongst other reasons, it just didn’t make sense to subject a person to criminal prosecution and possible jail time for possessing a substance that was about to become legally available. We recently published an article about the possibility of sports gambling becoming legal as early as this year, and following the path of marijuana, lawmakers in Annapolis are already proposing to alter the criminal laws regarding gambling.

The Maryland gambling laws are strange to say the least, and it doesn’t seem like they have been given much attention over the years. Gambling is not a common crime because save for some large scale book making operations or home casinos the police seem to have better things to do with their time than bust March Madness pools and small time poker games. Plus most people including police officers, prosecutors and judges, have taken part in some form of social gambling in their lives. Still, it is not out of the question for an unlucky gambler to be made an example of just to remind the rest of us that until it’s legal it’s illegal.

The few unlucky defendants that are prosecuted under Maryland state gambling laws are usually surprised to learn that all forms of gambling are grouped under one law. Section 12-102 of the criminal code makes it illegal to bet, wager and gamble. This same section also makes it illegal for a person to sell a book (take bets), run sports pools and keep an underground business where gambling takes place. Logic would dictate that those who are running underground casinos and taking bets would face harsher penalties than the gamblers themselves (similar to drug use/possession vs. drug distribution) but this is not the case. All forms of gambling in Maryland are punishable by the same 1-year maximum penalty, and have a completely harsh and archaic 6-month mandatory jail sentence. Yes, you read that correctly- gambling convictions carry mandatory jail time, which is six times greater than the mandatory jail time for wear, transport or carry of a firearm under 4-203.

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gummibar-1618074_1280-300x199Marijuana has been a major issue for state lawmakers in almost every recent legislative session, and this year is shaping up to be no different. Despite all the progress over the last five years in crafting state marijuana policy there are still numerous key issues that have yet to be settled. Without a doubt the headliner is the legalization of recreational use, but realistically 2019 does not appear to be the year where it’s going to happen. Legalization aside, there are still smaller points that need to be addressed, and many will be debated in Annapolis over the coming weeks.

One of the most common questions defendants ask is whether their probation can be violated for testing positive for marijuana. The simple answer is that a positive THC test can subject a defendant to a violation of probation, but what happens after a violation is submitted depends on a variety of factors. A standard condition of all Maryland probation sentences is that the defendant shall not illegally possess or use controlled substances, and marijuana is still a controlled substance in our state. A defendant who does not have a state medical cannabis license could easily be subject to violation of probation sanctions for a positive test, or even a civil possession citation. Obtaining a medical license could create a defense that the marijuana was possessed and used legally, but the idea for medical users is not to be violated in the first place. Licensed medical patients may be better off informing their probation officer ahead of time, rather than attempting to explain a positive test after the fact. The flip side is the argument that being a medical cannabis patient is protected health information that defendants should not be required to disclose. The reality is that probation officers and the courts have bigger things to worry about, and lawmakers have taken notice.

Rather than continue the back and forth over a substance that will likely become legal in 2020 one lawmaker has introduced a bill that would bar a positive marijuana test from being considered as violation of parole, probation and pre-trial release. There are exceptions to this rule such as when the judge specifically orders the defendant to abstain from the use of marijuana, but overall this law would clear up a great deal of confusion and alleviate an unnecessary burden on the courts. The same bill also proposes that the threshold for a criminal versus civil infraction for illegal possession of marijuana be increased from 10 grams to 1 ounce (28 grams). This proposal has been debated in other legislative sessions, and almost became law last year. Though it may not end up being a hugely impactful change, certain lawmakers have repeatedly questioned the arbitrary nature of a 10-gram limit. This bill also includes language creating a presumption that possession of less than an ounce does not support a felony charge for possession with intent to deliver, but the State could rebut this presumption with specific evidence of dealing.

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dollar-1362244_1280-1-300x200The 2019 Maryland legislative session is officially underway, and once again gambling and marijuana are set to take stage as two of the highest profile issues this winter. Healthcare, minimum wage and clean energy will grab occasional headlines, but the Blog will stay in its lane and only offer commentary on the criminal related issues set for debate in Annapolis. Marijuana seems like the less complex of the two criminal law topics because there’s really only one major question, to legalize or not to legalize. There is no doubt that recreational marijuana will one day be legal in Maryland, but it’s far too early to tell if this is a realistic possibility in 2019. Those who have been following the slow progress of state cannabis law believe 2020 is the more likely year for recreational sales to debut. Legalizing recreational use will certainly not be the only marijuana issue up for debate, as lawmakers will be forced to deal with lingering medical marijuana questions such as limiting the ability of large national corporations to buy out or undercut local grow operations and dispensaries. There will also likely be a host of issues tossed around pertaining to the number of grower and dispenser licenses that are available, and when these licenses can be issued.

As usual, the Blog will stay on top of all things cannabis in this year’s legislative session, but sports gambling may actually produce more headlines coming out of Annapolis. Maryland clearly missed the boat on taking advantage of a recent Supreme Court decision that made it unconstitutional to prohibit states from offering legalized sports gambling. New Jersey and neighboring Delaware were ready to pounce as soon as the decision came down, and their sports books were up and running within weeks. Both states have been raking in tax revenue for almost a year now, and casinos and racetracks in these states will be jam packed on Super Bowl Sunday (likely with a number of Maryland residents). In order to make up for the lack of foresight of previous lawmakers this year’s Senators and Delegates may try their hand at bending the State Constitution to legalize sports gambling earlier than once thought possible.

The State Constitution specifies that major expansion of commercial gambling must be a decision left up to voters by way of a referendum. The last referendum took place in 2012 when voters approved table gaming such as blackjack and poker and green-lit the new MGM National Harbor Casino in Prince George’s County. There were no gambling referendums in 2018 and the next chance to hold one will be in 2020, though many feel this is too long to wait due to the amount of revenue at stake. One potential solution could be to place sports gambling under the control of the state lottery, and treat wagering as just another lottery game. But taking bets on the Patriots to win the AFC is much different than selling Ravens scratch-off tickets, which is why the proposal could end up sparking intense litigation. And even if this lottery idea passes the General Assembly and is signed by the Governor, there is no guarantee that any bets will be placed before a potential 2020 referendum, as implementing new programs quickly and efficiently is not one of Maryland’s fortes. There are too many regulatory issue to be hammered out, and simple questions such as where betting would take place and potential tax percentages are yet to be answered.

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baltimore-217620__480-300x199The Governor of Maryland recently introduced a host of forthcoming law enforcement initiatives specifically aimed at reducing violent crime in Baltimore City. Baltimore’s violent crime rate has been trending in the wrong direction for years, and is a constant source of concern for residents, visitors and those who conduct regular business in the city. Putting all the embarrassing national news headlines aside, the bottom line is that people just don’t feel safe in Baltimore.   While the Governor has shown discretion by not outwardly blaming the city’s leadership, it’s clear from his actions that he has no faith the local government can do what it takes to reverse this disturbing trend. The city’s leadership does not even appear to be directly involved with the creation or implementation of these new initiatives, which include the formation of violent crime joint operations center downtown.

The joint operations center will serve as home base for upwards of 200 new law enforcement officers from sixteen agencies and seven law enforcement task forces such as the FBI, DEA, ATF and the U.S. Marshals. The Baltimore Police and the State’s Attoney’s Office will also have a presence in the center, in addition to a special operations unit of the Maryland State Police. With all these new law enforcement officers pounding the pavement there will certainly be hundreds of new cases to prosecute, but if you think the Governor simply planned to hand all these cases over to the local prosecutor then think again. The Governor wants many of these cases to be handled in federal court, and is doing so by expanding the reach of Project Exile, a program where city gun crime offenders are prosecuted in federally. The feds are not footing the entire bill for the increased workload, as the Governor actually pledged state money for the sole purpose of hiring more federal prosecutors to prosecute violent crime in the city. Federal sentencing guidelines are harsher with respect to violent offenses and crimes involving firearms, and the U.S. Attorney’s Office is notorious for high conviction rates. A defendant is far more likely to serve significant prison time in the federal system due to mandatory sentences and no parole.

The governor also announced greater funding for victim and witness relocation programs, which will increase the likelihood that state and federal prosecutors will have their witnesses ready and available when it comes time for trial. Violent crime cases are routinely dismissed due to witness unavailability, and this has become a major issue in Baltimore City for state and federal prosecutors alike. Another announcement from last week was the introduction of the Repeat Firearms Offenders Act of 2019, which will double the minimum mandatory prison sentence from 5 years to 10 for those convicted of felon in possession of a firearm. This law was modified a few years ago to make the mandatory sentence discretionary if the disqualifying crime and any punishment (including probation) ended more than 5 years prior to the new incident date. The effectiveness of mandatory minimum sentences is arguable, but politicians love them so they’re here to stay.

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prison-300x201The national prison population continues to decline, and for the first time in almost fifteen years the total number of inmates dipped below 1.5 million.  Last year Maryland lead the entire nation with a dramatic 10 percent reduction in prisoners, which brought the state inmate population down almost 2 thousand to a total of around 18 thousand.  While the simplest explanation for the decline is the passage of the Justice Reinvestment Act, a closer look reveals a variety of factors at play.

The Justice Reinvestment Act or JRA was a groundbreaking and massive piece of legislation that sought to reduce money and manpower dedicated to jailing defendants, and to divert these resources to treating and rehabilitating convicted defendants.  The JRA eliminated harsh mandatory sentences for repeat drug offenders convicted of non-violent offenses such as possession with intent to distribute narcotics.  The maximum penalty for possession of CDS not marijuana was also lowered to one year, which eliminated the possibility of a prison sentence for drug possession.  While most state correctional inmates are serving the original sentence handed down by the judge, a large portion are doing time for violating their probation. Lawmakers became aware that the sentences handed down for probation violations were getting out of control, and used the JRA to do something about it.

Each day dozens of defendants plea out to large suspended sentences in order to be released from jail, and many end up back in court on a violation.  Some of these violations are extremely minor, and could be avoided by more patient probation officers.  In the past defendants faced years in prison for extremely minor violations, but since the JRA went into effect there are now limits on the sentences handed down for these so called technical violations.  The limits are not binding on the judge, but are certainly persuasive when it comes to sentencing a probationer for a positive drug test, failing to complete treatment or not paying restitution.

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money-1428594__480-300x200Back in March the Maryland House of Delegates passed a bill that would place legalized sports gambling in the hands of voters come November.  At the time wagering on sports was effectively prohibited under federal law in almost all states, but Maryland lawmakers had expected the day to come when the Supreme Court would put an end to the illogical ban under the Professional and Amateur Sports Protection Act (PAPSA). That day finally came yesterday when the nation’s highest court declared PAPSA unconstitutional by a vote of 6-3.   We won’t bore our readers with the technical nuance of the ruling, but a brief explanation should be helpful to those not inclined to tackle the 30 page opinion. We will also comment on the expected impact of this opinion here in Maryland, which to put it plainly will be enormous.

Yesterday The Supreme Court reiterated that it is not the business of the federal government to regulate the way state governments regulate their citizens.  PAPSA did not make sports gambling illegal under federal law, and in fact wagering on sports has never been a specific federal crime.  Rather, PAPSA prohibited states from establishing their own sports wagering industry by allowing the Attorney General and individual sports organizations to bring legal action against anyone operating sports gambling business outside of Nevada.  The Court basically told federal lawmakers that if they want to make gambling illegal then go ahead, but if not then states have the authority under the 10thAmendment to make the decision for themselves.

Sports betting is now legal in all 50 states (or more accurately is not prohibited under federal law in any state), so what will the impact be in Maryland? As usual we’re starting off a little late to the game, as neighboring West Virginia has already passed sports gambling legislation and Delaware and New Jersey sports books will be up and running in no time.  But at least some of our lawmakers had the wherewithal to anticipate the SCOTUS ruling and start the ball rolling.  There will likely be a referendum on election day this year to officially legalize sports gambling at casinos and racetracks around the state, and there is no doubt that it will pass.  By 2019 we could see sports books opening at Laurel, MGM National Harbor, Maryland Live, The Horseshoe in Baltimore and all other licensed gambling establishments.  The main impact of legalized sports betting in Maryland will be the millions of dollars to spread around, though the profits may not be as high as people think as less than 5 percent of casino profits in Vegas are attributed to sports gambling.  But legalized wagering will bring increased traffic to the casinos and likely boost the already massive $1.7 billion in yearly revenue currently generated by Maryland casinos.  Casinos sports books don’t simply generate revenue through bets, as they are entertainment destinations for gamblers and sports fans alike.

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thirteen-bags-of-marijuana-found-in-taxi-cabLegalizing marijuana through an amendment to the state constitution remains a possibility, but independent of this of this massive policy shift lawmakers are still working diligently to modernize marijuana laws. There have been over twenty marijuana related bills introduced by Maryland lawmakers this year, but few will end up as law, and even fewer will have a impact in courtrooms across the state.  One marijuana bill that could potentially have an impact on the court system recently passed in the Senate by a wide margin, and is now headed to the House for a vote the first week of April. If this bill passes and is later signed into law the threshold for criminal possession of marijuana would increase from 10 grams to 1 ounce, meaning it would no longer be a crime to possess between 10 and 28 grams of pot.

If the marijuana threshold bill becomes law the amount of civil citations would likely double, but these cases have much less of a burden on the court system than criminal cases. Defendants in civil marijuana cases typically prepay the fine and forgo showing up to court, which is permitted for anyone age 21 and over. When fines are prepaid witnesses (generally police officers) do not need to be summonsed and judges and courtroom clerks can be utilized for other cases. Even if a defendant requests a trial, most jurisdictions treat these cases like minor traffic violations, and do not assign assistant state’s attorneys to prosecute them. Although most defendants over the age of 21 prepay the pot citation fines, we advise these defendants to show up to court and contest the allegations. Paying a fine for a civil marijuana citation will result in a conviction, albeit for a civil violation that is not subject for public inspection and does not appear on the judiciary website (casesearch), but it’s still a conviction for an offense that is illegal under federal law. Requesting a court appearance could result in a more favorable outcome than prepaying the fine such as a probation before judgment, a STET, a nolle prosequi or a not guilty finding. Each of these outcomes would allow the defendant to resolve the case without a conviction and eventually apply for an expungement. If you have the time to show up to court or the money to hire an attorney it would definitely be in your best interest.

The marijuana threshold bill passed 36-11 in the Senate, a wide margin by any calculation. Naturally for this many Senators to vote to increase the criminal possession threshold there would have to be some concessions in the other direction, as most politicians are weary about being too lenient on an issue that is perceived as a criminal in nature. The concession for this bill is an added provision making it illegal to consume marijuana in the passenger compartment of a motor vehicle that is driving, standing or parked on a public road. This provision, listed in section 21-903 of the transportation article would apply to drivers and passengers. In other words a cop could pull a car over and cite all its occupants for illegal marijuana use. This offense is not a major or jailable traffic crime, but it does carry up to a $530 fine and one point (3 points if there is an accident). It is virtually the same as the provision against consuming alcohol inside a vehicle, but the alcohol consumption statute only applies to drivers, and not passengers. We expect that this measure will pass in the House virtually unchanged, and eventually end up as law in October, but there are never guarantees when it comes to Maryland and marijuana laws. The Blog will continue to follow this bill and others related to state criminal and traffic laws. If you would like to speak to a lawyer about a criminal or traffic citation, or any other offense contact Benjamin Herbst at 410-207-2598 for a free consultation. Benjamin specializes in DUI, drug possession and alcohol consumption/ open container defense, and is available anytime to discuss your case.

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handgun-231699_640-300x169Maryland State Senators recently passed a sweeping bill that would modify a number of existing criminal laws ranging from drug dealing to gun possession, and now the bill moves on to the House for a vote later this month. The measure passed by a wide margin in the Senate, and the governor’s approval is expected as long as it arrives at his desk. The bill made headlines for including provisions that increase jail sentences for repeat offenders and adding funding for crime prevention initiatives, but there are numerous other proposals that could have major impacts in courthouses around the state.

Firearms and fentanyl have become two of the main hot button criminal law issues of the past few months, and the comprehensive criminal bill touches on both. With respect to firearms, the bill adds a provision that would enable police officers and prosecutors to apply for wiretaps in cases involving certain public safety code gun laws. These laws include the sale of stolen firearms and the transportation of guns for the purpose of illegal trafficking. Crimes involving straw purchases of regulated firearms may also be investigated through the use of wiretaps under the proposed law. A straw purchase would be buying a gun for someone who cannot or does not want to buy one, and while straw purchases are generally legally, when it comes to firearms the opposite is true. Other firearm provisions in the new bill include raising the maximum and minimum penalty for certain crimes involving handguns. Under the law a second conviction for wear, transport and carry of a handgun would carry a 15-year maximum penalty, up from 10 years. If the second offense occurs on school property the minimum sentence would be increased to 5 years, up from 3. The 5-year minimum sentence for use of a firearm during the commission of a crime would remain under the proposed law, but it would be classified as a felony instead of a misdemeanor. A second offense of this provision would carry a new 10-year minimum sentence.

In addition to stricter gun laws the Senate version of the crime bill also enhances the potential punishment for crimes involving fentanyl. This powerful synthetic narcotic has been responsible for thousands of overdoses, and in many cases the user had no idea that he or she was using it. The strength of fentanyl makes it an easy swap for heroin, and the abundance of it leads to higher profits for dealers. Previously fentanyl was grouped with morphine and opium derivatives with respect to the large amount section of the Maryland drug distribution laws, which meant that it would take more than 28 grams to trigger the 5-year mandatory penalty. Under the proposed law possession of more than 5 grams of fentanyl would trigger enhanced penalties reserved for suspected volume dealers.