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cityhall-300x214Rising crime rates, falling population and police and prison corruption have marred Baltimore City for the past few years, but now more than ever it is obvious that lawlessness starts from the top and trickles down. It has been several months since federal agents from the FBI and the IRS raided the former mayor’s home and office, so it came as no surprise that she was eventually charged. Still the news headlines were widespread when the government unsealed an 11 count criminal indictment last week, which was signed by the grand jury on November 14. The U.S. Attorney’s Office announced that the mayor was charged with conspiracy to commit wire fraud, conspiracy to defraud the United States, seven counts of wire fraud, and two counts of tax evasion. One day after the indictment was unsealed the former mayor surrendered to federal law enforcement and then promptly pled guilty at her arraignment. There’s little doubt defense lawyers worked diligently to come to a swift plea agreement in order to avoid further embarrassment to the city in exchange for more favorable treatment when sentencing arrives.

The former mayor’s sentence won’t determined for at least a couple months, as a pre-sentence investigation must be completed first. She is currently being supervised by federal pre-trial services, which means she as avoided incarceration for now. It is hard to imagine that this will be the case after sentencing though, as the breach of trust was massive. According to the plea the former mayor engaged in a criminal course of conduct from at least 2011 until this past spring when law enforcement made their investigation public. The specific allegations are heavily related to the former mayor’s ownership of a publishing company she used to market and sell children’s books she authored. On numerous occasions the former mayor conspired with her former legislative aid to defraud purchasers of the children’s books, including The University of Maryland Medical System (UMMS), which paid a total of $300,000 for 60,000 books. UMMS purchased the books on the condition they would be distributed to Baltimore City Public Schools as part of a community outreach program, but many never made it to public school students. Instead they were kept by the former mayor or double sold by charities that had no knowledge of the scam.

The plea also included admissions that the former mayor used payments from the children’s books to fund her own campaign under the guise of fictitious or straw donors. She used cash or untraceable money orders to conceal the origination of the funds, which totaled over $60,000. Finally, and not surprisingly the former mayor neglected to report any of the fraudulent earnings from the children’s book, and filed multiple false tax returns. In 2016 she reported around $31,000 of income and paid $4,000 in taxes when in reality her income was over $300,000 and her tax liability over $100,000. Of the 11 counts in the indictment, the former mayor ended up pleading guilty to 4, including conspiracy to commit wire fraud, conspiracy to defraud the United States, and two counts of tax evasion. She faces up to 20 years in prison on the first count and 5 years each on the other 3 counts, and will likely learn her fate at a sentencing hearing in the late winter or spring of 2020.

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graphics-882726_640-300x207There are a number of different ways to appeal or modify a criminal case in Maryland, and the rights of a defendant depend on where the case took place and whether it ended in a plea or a trial. All defendants with cases heard in the District Court of Maryland have an absolute right to appeal the outcome within 30 days to the circuit court. This includes criminal cases, traffic citations, peace orders, protective orders and civil cases. The appeal must be filed in writing with the district court clerk, and if the 30th day falls on a weekend or holiday the next business day is the final day. District court cases that are appealed will be assigned a new case number in the circuit court, and start over form scratch, which is called a de novo appeal. The circuit court judge will not (or is not supposed to) place any weight on the verdict or judgment from the district court in making his or her rulings.

The amount of time it takes for an appeal to be scheduled in circuit court depends on the jurisdiction. It can be as little as a few weeks in some, and a few months in others. During the time between the appeal and the new circuit court date a defendant who was placed on probation is still required to report as directed. If jail time was a part of the sentence, the defendant may still be required to serve unless the sentence is stayed or the defendant posts an appeal bond. The one exception to the automatic appeal rule is cases where probation before judgment is granted and accepted. Defendants who receive PBJ in any case waive their right to appeal to the circuit court, and their case is effectively over once the sentence is announced. The right to an automatic circuit court appeal is the same regardless of whether the case went to trial or the defendant took a plea.

Appealing a Maryland circuit court case is an entirely different animal, and the defendant’s rights depend on whether the case ended in a plea or a trial. A defendant who is found guilty after trial has an automatic right to appeal to the Court of Special Appeals in Annapolis, which is the state’s intermediate appellate court. The notice of appeal must be filed within 30 days at the circuit court clerk’s office, but the actual appellate brief will be filed several months down the road. In order to write an appellate brief the attorney will review transcripts of the entire trial, and then pick out any issues that may have been reversible error. In criminal cases where the defendant pled guilty he or she will not have an automatic right to appeal, but will actually have to ask for permission or leave to appeal from the court. Receiving leave to appeal is very rare, and in most cases will be denied. This should be something to consider when deciding to accept or reject a plea offer.

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courtroom-898931_1280-300x226Once the criminal justice system starts moving against a defendant in Maryland it becomes extremely difficult to undo the process. We are often contacted by victims who are requesting assistance in dropping charges against a defendant, and if you happen to be in this situation there are a few things to keep in mind. First off, victims in a criminal case never have total control over the prosecution of the case.   The State is the plaintiff in all Maryland criminal actions, and it is represented by the State’s Attorney’s Office in the county (or Baltimore City) where the case is prosecuted. The assistant State’s Attorney or the supervisor assigned to the case will have the ultimate decision whether to drop the charges or prosecute. As a general rule prosecutors will not simply drop a charge because the victim has had a change of heart, but this does not mean it’s out of the question. If you are a victim and want to have criminal charges dropped your best bet in many jurisdictions is to reach out to the State’s Attorney’s Office, and inform them in writing of your desire to drop the charges. Keep in mind that you should not make any incriminating statements, whether written or verbal. You should also never admit that you lied or exaggerated with respect to any statements made to the police or written in a statement of charges. Doing so could subject you to criminal prosecution for false statement to a law enforcement officer and in some extreme cases even perjury, so we advise consulting to a lawyer before speaking to the State’s Attorney’s Office about dropping charges.

In some jurisdictions the prosecutors are too busy to prosecute cases with uncooperative victims. Dozens of cases are dropped each day in places such as Baltimore City and Prince George’s County because victims fail to show up for court, but there is no blanket policy for this. A defendant should never expect his or her case to be dropped if the victim fails to show up for court, especially in cases where there the defendant and victim have had prior contacts with the criminal justice system. In cases where the victim does not show up for court, prosecutors have the ability to seek a body attachment for witnesses that have been served with a summons to appear in court. This means the sheriff could actually arrest a victim of a case and hold them in custody until the trial has concluded. This is pretty rare, but is not out of the question in felony assault cases and even second-degree assault cases involving injuries or repeat offenders.

A victim who is summonsed to appear in court must legally comply with the summons regardless of whether they want the case to move forward. But there are still ways to have the case dismissed or nolle prossed upon showing up for court. In cases where the victim and defendant are married, the victim cannot be compelled to testify against his or her spouse. The marital privilege has a few exceptions including that it cannot be invoked in a case involving child abuse and cannot be used more that once in an assault case, but other than that it is usually a foolproof way to have a case dropped. Keep in mind that the State could still choose to move forward without the testimony of the victim, but they would need some sort of other evidence such as independent witness testimony or the recording of a 911 call. In addition to marital privilege, a victim may also be able to invoke the 5th Amendment. No person can be compelled to testify in a criminal case if their testimony could be incriminating and result in potential charges.   5th Amendment invocation is common when two people are victims and defendants over the same incident, but it can be used in assault cases where only one person was charged. There are some exceptions to 5th Amendment invocation, and Benjamin Herbst is a Maryland second-degree and first-degree assault lawyer that offers free consultations about this and all other criminal matters. He is available 7 days a week at 410-207-2598.

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handcuffs-2102488__480-300x169Finding out that there is a warrant for your arrest is stressful and frightening, but it’s even worse if you think there is a warrant but you can’t find out for sure. The uncertainty and the waiting can often be a great deal more stressful than just taking care of the warrant and moving on with your life, but unfortunately in Maryland the judicial system is set up to keep many warrants sealed. The two types of arrest warrants in Maryland are bench warrants and arrest warrants. District or circuit court judges commonly issue bench warrants in cases where the defendant fails to appear or has violated a condition of his or her probation or pre-trial release. A judge can also issue a bench warrant for failure to pay fines or court costs, though this is much less common. Bench warrants are pubic and easily accessible by searching online or going to the clerk’s office. Arrest warrants on the other hand are issued by court commissioners or judges upon receiving a charging document from the State’s Attorney’s Office, a police officer or a civilian. Arrest warrants are sealed for 90 days or until served, which means the public will not be able to look them up on the case search website.

If you think you may have an arrest warrant there may be ways for you to confirm it, but this depends where your case is located. Some police departments such as Montgomery County are more than happy to check to see if you have a warrant, and even have warrants departments for this very purpose. It seems in their eyes there is a greater likelihood a person will schedule a turn in if they can know for sure there is a warrant. Other counties like Baltimore County have a strict policy where they will only give out warrant information to the defendant in person by showing up at a precinct. Baltimore County and many other police departments around Maryland do not give out warrant information over the phone, even to a lawyer. This obviously makes it more difficult to plan for a surrender prior to a warrant squad coming to get you at an inconvenient time. There is really no sound logic to keeping all warrants sealed, as most people who think they have a warrant will behave as if they do have one, and not just sit back and wait to be arrested. The exception is the issuance of a warrant pursuant to a sealed indictment in a complex criminal investigation where the risk of flight is high, but these cases are not the norm (especially in the state court system).

If you are able to find out that there is an arrest warrant the two most sensible options are to attempt to file a motion to convert the warrant into a summons or to surrender on your own terms.   A criminal defense lawyer can file a motion to convert an arrest warrant into a summons as long as he or she can locate the case number. Some district court judges will deny these motions as a matter of course and cite the District Court Administrative Regulations, but these regulations do not clearly prohibit a judge from converting a warrant into a summons, so it’s always worth a shot. If the motion is denied the next best option is to schedule a surrender at a police precinct or a commissioner’s office that is next to a jail or police station. Defendants who are served with an arrest warrant will have to be booked before seeing the commissioner, so the process may take several hours. In arrest warrant cases where there is a pre-set bail the defendant will not see the commissioner and can post bail as soon as the booking process is completed. Defendants can also wait until the next day to see the judge to request a reduced or unsecured bail, or release on recognizance.

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the-sea-1252182__480-300x200Nine recreational boaters were arrested for operating a vessel under the influence during the July 4th weekend according to the Maryland Natural Resources Police. The Natural Resources Police or NRP is the enforcement arm the Department of Natural Resources or DNR, and among other duties is responsible for patrolling the state’s hundreds of navigable waterways. They are especially busy during the summer months, with July 4th and Labor Day being perhaps the single two busiest days on the water each year. The main duty of NRP officers during these heightened times is to keep boat operators and their passengers safe out on the water, and boat safety checks are one of the most effective ways to achieve this goal. NRP officers conducted close to 2,000 safety checks over the holiday weekend and issued almost 700 citations for violations of the State Boat Act, which is part of the Waters section of the Natural Resources code.

If you are operating a vessel on a Maryland waterway during a holiday weekend there is a good chance you will be approached by an NRP officer for a safety check. Unlike a traffic stop on state roadways, boating officers do not need reasonable suspicion to approach a vessel to conduct a safety check. NRP officers can make close contact with vessel operators and their passengers at basically any time, and this contact can quickly turn into a criminal investigation.

During boat safety checks the officers will make sure the required safety equipment is present and that the number of occupants does not exceed Coast Guard limits, but the officers are always on the lookout for the possibility of drug use or an impaired operator. If an officer suspects that the operator is under the influence he or she may request the operator to submit to field sobriety exercises and a breath test similar to what occurs during a DUI investigation out on the road. A boat operator is not required to submit to a breath test unless there is an accident involving death or serious injury, but refusing could trigger a one-year suspension of operating privileges. The penalties for operating a vessel under the influence of alcohol or drugs are basically the same as the penalties for drunk driving. Boating under the influence of alcohol carries a 1-year maximum jail sentence and a $1,000 fine, while boating while impaired carries a 60-day jail sentence and a $500 fine. These citations are often accompanied by charges for operating a vessel in a reckless or dangerous manner. Unlike its traffic counterpart in the transportation code, under the Maryland boat law operating a vessel in a reckless or dangerous manner carries a potential 30-day jail sentence for a first offense and a 60-day sentence for a subsequent offense. These citations are criminal must appear citations, and failure to appear could trigger an arrest warrant. While a conviction for operating a vessel under the influence or reckless operation could result in a criminal record, they do not trigger driver’s license suspensions.

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marijuana-1281540_1280-300x225While legalizing marijuana has been discussed in previous legislative sessions, a legitimate proposal has yet to gain steam in Annapolis. Recreational marijuana will be legalized in Maryland within the next few years one way or another, but the state will move at its own pace. Based off the medical program that pace can be described as deliberate, or just plain slow. In order for legalization to actually have a legitimate shot of becoming law in 2020 the momentum has to start building soon, and it appears the ball has already started rolling. This past week a group of Maryland lawmakers conducted their first meetings as members of the marijuana legalization task force, which is a major sign that legalization has a legitimate shot of passing next year. This is not the first time a task force has been convened to address state marijuana policy, but this year it seems the sole focus is on legalization.

The bi-partisan task force is made up of state senators and delegates, and is expected to make formal recommendations by the end of the calendar year, which will be used to shape legislation when the 2020 session opens in January. Members will divide up into subcommittees that will focus on a variety of issues such as the impact on the criminal justice system, potential tax rates, licensing requirements and the impact on public health. Lawmakers will also seek the advice of outside experts with respect to issues such as the conflict between state legalization and federal laws that still consider marijuana to be a controlled substance.

This being a criminal law Blog, we’ll take a minute to comment on the criminal justice impacts that legalization could produce. The most obvious impact would be that criminal cases for possession of marijuana would likely cease to exist, with the exception being possession by minors and adults under the age of 21. Lawmakers would have to address whether possession by an underage person would be a civil infraction like with alcohol, or a criminal infraction. New regulations on the on the amount of pot a person could possess and where they could possess it would be imposed, but violation of these rules would likely be a civil infraction. Legalization would drastically reduce possession of marijuana with the intent to distribute cases, as the customer base would shrink to those who are unable to purchase at a dispensary, namely those under 21. Finally, charges for manufacturing marijuana (growing at home) would also be drastically reduced, as legalization would likely allow a limited number of plants to be cultivated within the confines of a lawful private residence.

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hammer-719066_960_720-300x225Under Maryland law all defendants who are charged with an offense that carries more than 90 days in jail are entitled to a jury trial, but requesting a jury trial and actually going through with one are two entirely different things. Requesting or praying a jury trial occurs when a defendant decides to transfer his or her case from the district court to the circuit court. Almost all criminal cases start out in the district court, but jurors are never summoned to appear in district court and they don’t conduct jury trials. Felony charges (except theft and other exceptions like animal cruelty) must eventually be handled in the circuit court due to jurisdiction rules, but there are countless misdemeanor charges that are handled in district court and provide a jury trial right. Common offenses in this category include second-degree assault, theft (all types over $100), DUI, malicious destruction of property and drug possession. Defendants facing trial in district court for these offenses have the option to stay put or move to the circuit court, and there are conflicting opinions about what the right decision may be.

Circuit court is the higher court and the most serious crimes are handled there, but this should not be a deterrent to defendants who are thinking about requesting a jury trial. Keep in mind that circuit court judges are used to hearing felony cases such as murder, robbery and drug distribution all day, so your misdemeanor case usually won’t seem like the crime of the century in their eyes. Additionally, circuit court prosecutors are more experienced and have a better grasp on the cases where they should ask for a harsh sentence, and the ones where they should take a step back. Generally speaking, if you have a misdemeanor charge or a felony theft charge the judges and prosecutors tend to be more reasonable in circuit court, so it may be beneficial to request a jury trial. In some jurisdictions like Anne Arundel County, Baltimore City and Queen Anne’s County it’s usually a good idea to request a jury trial, and in others it depends on the judge.

Once again, requesting a jury trial and actually going through with a jury trial are two different things. Once the case is in circuit court you will eventually have to decide whether to accept a STET, plead guilty or go to trial with a judge or a jury. As a general rule if the state offers to STET your case (postpone the case indefinitely without a finding of guilt) you should accept. You could always decide to bring the case back and fight it within a year, but usually it’s not worth the gamble if you can guarantee the case will be closed without admitting any type of guilt. Deciding whether to accept a plea is always up to the defendant, but everyone in this position should have a lawyer to consult with before making this important decision. Finally, the last decision if the case can’t be worked out is to decide between a court trial and a jury trial. At a court trial the judge will determine guilt or innocence after hearing the evidence, which basically means the entire trial is in the hands of one person. At a jury trial in Maryland, the state must convince all 12 jurors beyond a reasonable doubt in order for them to come back with a guilty verdict. A good criminal defense lawyer will stress to the jury just how difficult it is to reach the level of proof beyond a reasonable doubt. If the jury is unsure they must acquit, which is something that must be hammered home at all stages of the trial.

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car-1531277__480-300x200Last week Howard County Police arrested a man for theft after he allegedly stole $3,000 worth of merchandise from the Walmart located in Ellicott City off Route 40. The man was handcuffed and placed in the backseat of a county police cruiser while the officer concluded his investigation. But rather than wait for the officer to return and escort him to the police station, the man decided he wasn’t ready to be booked for felony theft just yet. The suspect, who was handcuffed behind his back, found a way to move his arms to to the front of his body and then squeezed through to the driver’s seat of the cruiser. It being a warm day, the air conditioning was likely on with the keys in the ignition, and all the suspect had to do was place the car in drive and he was on his way.

While it may have appeared for a quick minute that he was free as a bird, the fact that police weren’t in hot pursuit as he drove east toward Baltimore only created the illusion that his getaway plan was working. Police knew the exact location of the suspect but chose not to engage in a high-speed chase for safety and tactical reasons. All Howard County police cars are equipped with GPS monitors, so once the car came to a stop the cavalry arrived and took the man into custody. He was located just a few miles away in West Baltimore, which is easily accessed by speeding down Interstate 70 past Woodlawn and Security Blvd. Instead of being booked for theft over $1,500 and less than $25,000, which is a felony with a 5-year maximum penalty the 32 year old Baltimore County man now faces 9 criminal charges and a host of traffic infractions. Also, rather than being released on his own recognizance by the commissioner or posting a small bond for the theft charge, the man is now being held without bond a the Howard County Detention Center in Jessup.

Among the additional charges the defendant now faces is motor vehicle theft, drug possession, unauthorized removal of a motor vehicle, resisting arrest, failing to obey a lawful command of a police officer and escape in the second degree. He was also issued citations for driving without a license, driving on a suspended license, leaving the scene of an accident and fleeing and eluding a police officer. The man was held without bond by both the commissioner and a district court judge, with the main reason likely being that he was considered a flight risk. Anyone charged with escape and even fleeing and eluding to a degree faces an uphill battle at bail review. In this case it appears as though the defendant made an impulsive decision to run, which does not necessarily translate to him being a high risk for failing to appear at court. The man probably should have been granted a bail, but the highly sensational and public facts surrounding the flight likely precluded bail from being an immediate possibility.

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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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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.