Articles Posted in Theft Crimes

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

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

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

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home-1331633_960_720-300x267Online shopping has never been more popular, but the convenience can come at a price. Like the old days, the preferred method of delivering a package to a single family home or townhouse is simply to leave it at the front porch. The inherent flaw of placing potentially valuable packages in plain sight of those walking or driving by is outweighed by the cost of repeat delivery attempts for companies like Amazon and UPS, and the unfortunate result is that package theft has become commonplace. We blogged about a string of package thefts in the Pikesville area of Baltimore County a few years ago, but until now this crime of opportunity has largely stayed out of the news. Last month a package theft in Harford County made national headlines, but not for the reasons you might think.

On November 30th a five-year old girl was caught on camera taking a package from the front porch of another person’s Abingdon home, and the video quickly spread throughout the country. As you might expect, the girl appeared to be looking off to her side at someone for direction, and this someone was revealed less than 2 weeks later after an anonymous tipster identified the young girl. Police filed charging documents for a 46-year old Baltimore man on December 14 and a warrant was issued for his arrest that same day. There are currently four charges including theft, conspiracy to commit theft and 4th degree burglary. The defendant was also charged under the Courts and Judicial Proceedings Article for contributing to certain conditions of a child, which makes it a crime to encourage a child to commit an illegal act. This offense carries a 3-year maximum penalty and a $2,500 fine.

Fourth degree burglary is charged when a suspect either breaks and enters a dwelling (home) or store, or is alleged to have entered the yard or garden of a dwelling with the intent to commit a theft, like in this case. This is the only misdemeanor burglary offense, and it carries a 3-year maximum penalty. First, second and third degree burglary are all felonies with maximum punishments ranging from 10 years to 25 years if violence is involved. The suspect in this case was charged with theft less than $100 because the package he stole contained a pair of boots valued around $90. This offense carries a 90-day maximum sentence, as does conspiracy to commit theft less than $100. The conspiracy charge is peculiar from a legal standpoint, as the State would basically be saying the defendant conspired with a 5-year old. This charge will almost certainly be dropped by the State.

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monitor-1307227__480-300x212Theft is one of the most common crimes in Maryland, with over 100,000 cases reported annually to law enforcement.  Most of the reported cases involve valuable personal property, but if you factor in retail theft/ shoplifting and the thousands of other petit cases that citizens don’t bother to report the true number of thefts is likely around a quarter of a million per year.  Unlike 10 to 20 years ago, only a small percentage of these cases are motor vehicle thefts. In the early 2000’s and at points in the mid 90’s there were frequently over 35,000 motor vehicle thefts per year, and now this number is hovering around 10,000.  The drastic drop in motor vehicle thefts could be a result of new technology, which has made cars more difficult to steal.  But the real story is the evolving ability of law enforcement to track the commerce of second hand items.

All vehicles sold in America have unique vehicle identification numbers, which make it difficult to illegally buy and sell stolen cars.  Nobody wants to drive a stolen car because it’s only a matter of time before law enforcement finds it.  This drastically decreases the value of a stolen vehicle, and in turn makes cars less of a target for thieves.  The incentive to steal cars in this day and age is for the expensive parts and the scrap metal, which have no unique identifying information.  This creates an obvious problem for law enforcement, as there is no way to know if something is stolen.  On the other hand if you can track when, where and by whom something is sold, you may be able to match that up with a reported theft to produce a suspect. This data gathering approach to law enforcement is far from glamorous, but it has been highly effective in Maryland.

Last year Maryland law enforcement officers recovered over $5 million worth of stolen property by analyzing data stored in the RAPID database, which keeps track of all scrap metal, pawn/jewelry, and recycled automotive part transactions around the state.  Any licensed business that engages in the second hand commerce of these products is required to keep track of all their transactions, including gathering and entering the identity of persons selling items. The transactions are then recorded and saved into a uniform database that is accessible by all law enforcement agencies.  A quick example of the RAPID database in action could go like this:  a suspect breaks into a house and steals a laptop and a watch in Anne Arundel County.  There are no eyewitnesses and the suspect makes a clean getaway.  The same suspect or an accomplice then travels to another area like Baltimore or Montgomery County to pawn the items.  The pawnshop employee gladly takes the items in exchange for cash (at a major discount) with the only condition that the suspect produces identification and sign for the items.  Two days later the homeowner reports a burglary to police, who come out to the scene and inventory the stolen items.  A detective then runs the items through the RAPID database, the transaction pops up and the detective basically has enough evidence right there to seek an arrest warrant for the suspect for theft and burglary.

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thief-1562699__480-300x200Police recently announced the arrest of three suspects in more than twenty home burglaries in the Falls Road area of northern Baltimore County. The burglaries have placed the entire community on edge since the fall when the crime spree first began. Residents became frustrated over the lack of arrests or leads, and showed up in the hundreds at two separate community meetings to voice their concerns to law enforcement. Just days after the last community meeting in Timonium police caught a break after a witness observed an SUV with North Carolina plates in the area of a recent break in. Officers located the suspicious SUV and began to follow the driver until he pulled over and attempted to flee. This suspect was apprehended shortly thereafter, while the other two were located in the woods after a brief manhunt using helicopters and K9 units to track the suspects. After executing search warrants and speaking with victims police estimate the total value of stolen items to be over a million dollars, and law enforcement is not ruling out the possibility that additional suspects with involvement could remain at large.

All three defendants are being held at the Baltimore County Detention center on numerous counts of first degree burglary. Under Maryland law first degree burglary is defined as breaking into a dwelling or home with the intent to commit a theft, and is classified as a felony with a maximum prison sentence of 20 years. Despite mandates ordering district court judges to impose the least restrictive means to ensure the presence of the defendant at future court hearings all three defendants were denied bail, and now could be forced to wait for weeks or even months in custody until their cases are resolved. The two main factors judges consider at bail review hearings are whether the defendant poses a danger to the community and whether the defendant is a flight risk. In these three cases the bail review judge ruled that both red flags were present, as the state likely argued breaking into homes poses an imminent danger to the community, especially when the homeowners were present as has been alleged in a number of these cases.  Additionally, first degree burglary is considered a violent crime in Maryland under the criminal sentencing policy.  All defendants reside out of state and thus have limited ties to the community, which arguably would pose an elevated flight risk.

At the time of this post all three of the defendants do not have defense attorneys on record, though when they do decide to hire counsel the first matter to address will be their bail situation. It is uncommon for defendants who are not charged with a violent crime or a crime involving a firearm to be held without bail, and with proper preparation a lawyer may be able to convince a judge that release pending trial is justified. While each of the defendants faces a total maximum sentence of over 400 years the sentencing guidelines will call for much less. The three defendants are currently set for preliminary hearings at the end of February in the Towson district court, but the state will almost certainly file charges on these cases in the circuit court by way of indictment or criminal information. The Blog will track the progress of this burglary spree and may post a follow up article in the future so stay tuned.

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packs-163497_1280-300x200Last spring a large-scale investigation began in order to locate nearly $40,000 in funds that went missing from the Montgomery County Council of PTAs. The council represents 192 parent-teacher associations from individual schools, making it the single largest PTA organization in the state of Maryland. Members first noticed irregularities in the books back in March and then conducted a three-week internal audit, which revealed that money had been improperly taken from the council’s checking account for about nine months. The money consisted of donations and fundraising event proceeds that would ultimately be used to better the public school experience for students, teachers and parents, and the loss of $40,000 severely limited the council’s ability to plan for the upcoming school year. While the audit did provide some answers, the person or persons responsible for the missing funds remained somewhat of a mystery (at least publicly) and the case was forwarded over to the Montgomery County Police.

Those familiar with the day-to-day operations of the council likely had their suspicions that the newly appointed treasurer was responsible for the missing money. The irregularities began around the time she began her post, and ended after she had resigned in March. Apparently around $10,000 was actually returned to the account in February, around the time that council members noticed something wasn’t right and began asking questions. The former treasurer was not officially charged by the State’s Attorney’s Office in the circuit court until last month, though negotiations between lawyers on both sides had been ongoing before that. A plea agreement was filed by both parties on the same day as the charging document, and the former treasurer will learn her fate at a disposition hearing set for later this month. Maryland sentencing guidelines in this particular case call for a sentence of probation to 6 months in jail, and judges typically adhere to these guidelines. It would be reasonable to expect the judge to invoke a split sentence of county jail time under 6 months followed by probation with the condition that restitution to the council be paid in full.

While the amount in question certainly rises to a felony level theft, the charge of embezzlement is actually a misdemeanor under Maryland criminal law section 7-113. The new theft law as of October 1st makes it a felony to steal anything over $1,500 but legally speaking embezzlement and theft are two separate concepts. Theft consists of unlawfully obtaining the property or services of another, while embezzlement occurs when a person has lawful possession or control of something (money in this case) and uses or secretes if for the wrong purpose. In this case the former treasurer had control over the council’s account, so she did not actually steal anything. Rather, she used the account for a purpose that was contrary to her duty as a fiduciary. The embezzlement law still carries a mandatory jail sentence of one year, but this can be avoided by the imposition of a probation before judgment, or by the imposition of a suspended sentence. Most crimes with minimum mandatory sentences, like firearm crimes, specifically do not allow for suspended sentences or PBJs but this statute does not contain any such language. The Blog will follow this case and may post a follow up article if anything unpredictable occurs at the disposition hearing.

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backhoe-413903_1280-300x158Police are on the hunt for a brazen thief who recently attempted to steal an ATM machine with a construction backhoe in Prince George’s County. The failed heist was caught on closed circuit television cameras stationed on the exterior of a Capital Heights bank, and the footage was later handed over to police. The video shows an unidentified person riding up to the bank parking lot aboard a tractor, which investigators determined was driven several miles on public roads to reach the scene of the crime. Upon arriving, the suspect positioned the excavating equipment for maximum destruction and repeatedly used its backhoe to strike the unsuspecting cash machine. Sparks and pieces of plastic flew, and after a minute or so the cash machine was unrecognizable. Fortunately though the ATM’s thick armor proved too strong for the backhoe to penetrate, and the suspect fled the scene with no extra cash in hand. In the valiant effort to retain all its legal tender, the ATM did suffer an estimated $10,000 worth of damages.

Prince George’s County police detectives have reason to believe this theft was related to a prior successful ATM theft at a tobacco shop, where the perpetrator gained entry through the roof. In addition to stealing cash the unidentified perp also made out with hundreds of cartons of cigarettes. It is unclear why detectives believe the two unorthodox crimes are related, or whether they have any legitimate leads on a possible suspect. If a suspect happens to be apprehended then he or she will face a slew of charges in the district and circuit courts in Hyattsville and Upper Marlboro. In the backhoe case the suspect would likely be charged with motor vehicle theft, trespass and malicious destruction of property. The particular theft charge filed in this case would depend on the amount of cash inside the ATM. Police would have the bank open the machine and total up the value of the bills, and any amount over $1,000 would trigger a felony theft charge. Prosecutors could even add the value of the machine itself, which would surely escalate the charge to a theft $10,000 to $100,000.

If police crack the tobacco shop case the defendant would face similar charges to the ATM case, with the addition of felony burglary counts. The act of breaking into a store with the intent to steal something would generally trigger a charge of second degree burglary that carries a maximum jail sentence of 15 years. If a burglar steals a firearm the punishment could increase to a maximum 20 years, which is the same penalty as a first degree home burglary. The Blog will continue to follow this case to see if police develop any leads that could produce a suspect. Investigators may have a tough time unless the thief left any physical evidence behind such as personal belongings or perhaps DNA and fingerprints. Police did not release the entire video to the public, including the part where the suspect fled so there may already be some leads. We will post another article if police catch a break and end up making an arrest. Benjamin Herbst handles burglary, theft and malicious destruction of property cases in all Maryland courts. If you have a case or a question feel free to call Benjamin anytime to discuss.

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atm-313958_1280-300x200The number of Baltimore City school employees recently arrested for stealing from their own schools climbed to four after a former principal was charged with numerous counts of theft and embezzlement. The 44 year-old female administrator from Owings Mills now faces felony charges in the Baltimore Circuit Court, which has seen more than its share of public corruption cases. The allegations in this particular criminal scheme are disturbing to say the least as this was far from a one-time thing for the ex principal, whose school closed down after the 2016 academic year. She had been working at the school board’s central office on North Avenue, but is now on leave and is likely never return. A male teacher from Randallstown that worked at the same alternative high school has also been charged, and he will be co-defendants with his former boss in one of her three cases. The co-defendant case has an incident date of June 8th, 2016, right around the time the school closed, but the former boss is facing theft scheme and misappropriation by a fiduciary/ embezzlement charges in two other cases that allegedly began 2013.

The Office of the Maryland State Prosecutor is handling this prosecution, as they do with many public corruption cases not pursued by the feds. The office began investigating both defendants after being notified of the possible wrongdoing by the Baltimore City School’s legal department. Charging documents for one of the cases alleges that the former principal stole $13,409.28 from a bank account that she set up on behalf of the school. Proceeds from school uniform sales, school supplies, class dues and graduation fees were all placed into the account only to be withdrawn by the defendant in 49 separate ATM transactions at of all places a casino. The Maryland Live Casino in Anne Arundel County likely has recorded footage of the former principal using the school’s debit card to take out cash that was simply gambled away. Another case alleges that the former principal used fraudulent purchase orders to steal over $40,000 of electronics from the Baltimore City school system, including speakers, laptops, tablets and digital cameras. Finally, the most recent case alleges the former principal and her co-worker conspired to steal four flat screen televisions from the now closed high school at the city county line near Dundalk.

All indictments were filed in the circuit court last week and the charges were just announced by the state prosecutor. Neither defendant is currently incarcerated nor are there court dates set at this time. Both will likely be arraigned within the next month, and their cases will be set for trial 2-3 months later. The former principal is facing the realistic possibility of a jail sentence for her actions, although the last Baltimore public school principal found guilty of felony theft received a five year suspended sentence. If found guilty, the teacher who allegedly participated in the television theft will not likely face jail time and could possibly be granted the benefit of a probation before judgment, thus keeping his record free of a felony conviction. The Blog will follow the progress of these cases, and we may post another article in the future.

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pistol-1350484_1280-300x200Two suspects who burglarized a Rockville gun shop last week remain at large, and now law enforcement officers believe they may be linked to another recent burglary in nearby Virginia. Montgomery County police officers were alerted to the crime scene last week by the store’s alarm system at round 4 a.m., and they quickly responded to the Rockville shop to find the door pried open and glass cases smashed. Several firearms were taken from the glass cases as well as from racks behind the counter. In total the store reported more than 30 missing handguns and long rifles. The burglary gained national attention after the entire 90-second spree was captured on two high definition cameras, which were played for television and internet audiences. Both suspects were covered head to toe on black garb, and their faces were covered, thus making visual identification nearly impossible. A small clip of one of the suspects warning the other that it was time to leave the scene is audible and the burglars were allegedly spotted fleeing in a light colored four-door sedan, but there does not appear to be any other identifying information on the pair. There is no word yet whether crime scene investigators were able to recover any beneficial forensic evidence such has hair, skin or shoe samples.

Another gun store was burglarized this week in the same manner, and law enforcement officers are searching for clues as to whether these two smash and grabs are linked. The suspects in the Fairfax County crime were dressed differently, but appear to be similar in stature to the suspects in the Rockville burglary. Montgomery County Police are joined by federal agents from the ATF and Virginia officers in searching for leads to these two burglaries. If the suspects are apprehended they could be prosecuted under state law, federal law or both. Under Maryland state law the actions of the two suspects would be classified as a second degree burglary. There is a special provision under 6-203 of the Maryland code that deals specifically with breaking and entering with the intent to steal a firearm. The maximum punishment for a violation of this section is 20 years as opposed to 15 years for a standard burglary in the second degree. If prosecuted under state law each defendant could face over 30 counts (one for each gun) of second-degree firearm burglary as well as theft and destruction of property charges. With the announced involvement of the ATF though, it is likely that if the case is ever cracked the defendants will have to answer for their actions in the U.S. District Court in Greenbelt.

The ATF reported over 550 burglaries of licensed gun stores nationwide in 2016. This number rose from 377 in 2015, which represents a disturbing increase of over 50 percent. The illegal market for firearms will continue to thrive as states such as Maryland pass stricter limitations on gun possession and legal purchases, and as a result the ATF and local law enforcement could once again have their hands full in 2017.

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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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account-1280502_1280-200x300Public corruption cases have always garnered special attention from law enforcement officers and prosecutors, and the media seems equally interested. Baltimore City made national news headlines in 2016 after a corruption scheme was exposed at the city jail as did the arrest of a Baltimore school principal who pled guilty to theft of student activity funds back in 2014. While these cases caused a stir, there is a particular kind of outrage reserved for elected public servants who cheat or steal from the very people that put them in office and pay their salaries. Elected officials almost always campaign on a platform of honesty and devotion to their constituents, and although few actually deliver on these promises actual corruption is rarely exposed. However, there will be at least two former Maryland politicians facing jail sentences for corruption in 2017. We already posted about the former Maryland State Delegate from Prince George’s County who is awaiting sentencing in federal court in April for bribery, and now he will be joined in asking for a judge’s mercy by another corrupt ex-politician.

The former mayor of a small eastern shore town in Caroline County recently pled guilty to theft scheme from $10,000 to $100,000, malfeasance in office and forgery. The 52-year old woman was also charged with embezzlement and other counts of theft, which were nolle prossed pursuant to her plea agreement. In a criminal complaint law enforcement alleged that the former mayor transferred money from the Town of Marydel’s bank account into her own account and even went so far as to use a debit card in the town’s name to pay her personal bills. There were also claims that the shamed former mayor forged the signatures of other town officials on checks that she used for herself. The theft scheme totaled more than $61,000, which is a huge chuck of change for a town with a population of less than 200.

credit-card-1211408__480-300x195The Office of the State Prosecutor handled the case in place of the Caroline County State’s Attorney, which is common practice when elected officials are prosecuted. This is especially true in smaller jurisdictions where all elected officials typically work closely together and are on a first name basis with each other. The former politician is currently being held at the county jail without bail, and will go before a circuit court judge in Denton in April to learn her fate. She faces up to 10 years in prison on the forgery charge and 15 years on the felony theft charge. The malfeasance in office count is a common law violation that does not carry a specific maximum punishment. Maryland judges are only bound by the Eight Amendment, which bars cruel and unusual punishment for common law crimes other than conspiracy. A sentence for conspiracy cannot be greater than the maximum penalty for the crime at issue.