Each spring the passage of new laws creates numerous headlines coming out of the State House in Annapolis, and no subject creates more buzz than criminal legislation. Marijuana has dominated the last few years of criminal legislation headlines, but this year decriminalization and medical cannabis takes a back seat to a massive new set of laws falling under the Justice Reinvestment Act. Of all the new laws contained in the Act, none will be as impactful as the provision eliminating mandatory minimum jail sentences for a host of drug crimes. For decades a repeat offender for a low level drug dealing crime under 5-602 to 5-606 of the criminal code faced the possibility of a mandatory 10, 25 or 40 year sentence without parole. These mandatory sentences were often used as leverage by prosecutors to pressure defendants into pleading guilty, as the trial judge would have no choice but to slam a convicted defendant who turned down a plea deal. As of today though, a repeat offender for common street level drug dealer crimes such possession with intent to distribute narcotics will no longer face the possibility of a mandatory prison sentence upon conviction.
The new law repealing mandatory minimum sentencing only applies for street level drug dealing crimes and will have no effect on the so-called drug kingpin statute described in 5-612. These crimes, which include possessing, distributing or manufacturing 50 pounds or more of marijuana, 28 grams or more of opiates like heroin and 448 grams or more of cocaine will retain a 5-year mandatory sentence and a massive $100,000 potential fine. Mandatory minimum sentences for possessing a firearm in a drug trafficking crime are also unaffected by the new law.
In crafting the Justice Reinvestment Act lawmakers not only eliminated the mandatory minimum for low-level drug dealing, but also created an avenue for those already serving mandatory sentences for these crimes to file a special motion to modify their sentence. Starting today the courts are accepting motions to modify these sentences and will likely be inclined to grant them unless the state proves keeping the mandatory sentence intact is necessary for the protection of the public. Defendants currently serving prison time will have until September of 2018 to file for this special modification. Those serving mandatory sentences for drug kingpin crimes and firearm crimes are not eligible to file for this modification.
The Act also reduces the maximum penalty for possession of CDS from 4 years to 1 year, and reduces the penalty for possession of marijuana over 10 grams from 1 year to 6 months. The fines for these offenses are also reduced beginning today. While drug offenses seem to be the major focus of the new law changes, the legislature also reduced the penalty for theft crimes. Theft under $1,000 will be replaced by theft under $1,500 and the penalty will decrease from 18 months to 6 months for a first offense and 1 year for a second offense. Theft from $1,000 to $10,000 is replaced by theft from $1,500 to $25,000 and though it remains a felony the maximum penalty will now be 5 years in jail. Stealing $25,000 to $10,0000 will now carry a 10-year maximum sentence and over $100,000 will carry a 20-year sentence.
Other new statutes that will have have criminal implications include a law requiring veterinarians to report to law enforcement any animals that are suspected to be victims of violence of abuse. This may have the direct effect of police and prosecutors filing more animal cruelty cases, and could result in dozens of innocent defendants being charged due to an overabundance of caution exhibited by vets. There is also a provision that expands the definition of second degree child abuse, which a felony under the family law article.
For any questions about the new Maryland laws that are currently in effect feel free to contact Benjamin Herbst at 410-207-2598. Benjamin is an experienced criminal defense lawyer that handles drug crimes, animal cruelty, theft and child abuse.