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elections-1527438_1280-300x300The 2017 Maryland legislative session began this week, and one former delegate probably wishes he took part in the opening day festivities. But instead of shaking hands and schmoozing in Annapolis, a former lawmaker from Prince George’s County spent the first part of his New Year inside a Greenbelt courtroom. This week federal prosecutors announced a recently unsealed guilty plea by a former state and local politician who served 10 years as a PG county councilman before being elected to his most recent position as a state delegate in 2014. His stint as a state lawmaker didn’t last long after he unexpectedly resigned just one year after taking office, and now there is a good explanation for the sudden resignation. It turns out that the feds had been investigating the 42-year old Hyattsville man for a few years, and their investigation culminated in the recent guilty plea to conspiracy and bribery. Federal prosecutors revealed that the man had accepted an estimated $40,000 in return for political favors, most of which had to do with his power over the allocation of public funds earmarked for his district. The illegal activity was not confined to one or even a couple transactions, but rather a course of conduct that was anything but isolated. The multi year public corruption probe that uncovered the former delegate’s misdoings also implicated two members of the county’s liquor board and two local businessmen. Undercover FBI agents made numerous deals with the politicians that included cash payments for the promise of favorable treatment.

Each of the dirty politicians and their private citizen cohorts are being prosecuted federally by the United States Attorney’s Office for the District of Maryland. While the Blog has recently published a few articles about this office pursuing relatively small time gun and drug cases, public corruption and other white collar crimes are the U.S. Attorney’s bread and butter. State law enforcement and prosecution offices simply do not have the resources and perhaps the patience to execute multiyear public corruption investigations. On top of that it may be near impossible for local law enforcement agencies to keep these kinds of complex investigations under wraps, especially when they involve politicians holding office in their own jurisdictions. After all, state’s attorneys and even police chiefs are politicians too. But these cases are right in the FBI’s wheelhouse, and the federal prosecutors who eventually take over their cases have a great deal of pride in exposing crooked state and local politicians. We only wish the two could collaborate with as much success against federal politicians, who are rarely exposed.

The Blog will continue to follow this public corruption case and other similar cases that develop in the future. It seems as if this particular defendant cooperated with federal authorities and as a result will likely receive a more lenient sentence. Authorities have not stated exactly how the defendant cooperated or whether his cooperation directly led to the charging of the liquor board members, but we will post if this information comes to light. The former delegate faces up to 15 years in prison when he goes before a federal judge at his April sentencing hearing, and he has already agreed to pay $340,000 in criminal restitution.

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

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

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

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hammer-719066_960_720-300x225While the U.S. Attorney’s Office is known for complex criminal prosecutions such as fraud, drug trafficking and gang activity, federal prosecutors also devote resources toward punishing corporations that stray from the law. Unlike a typical criminal prosecution where a defendant can end up in jail or on probation, when a corporation is being investigated for wrongdoing its employees and shareholders are not usually facing individual sentences. Rather, prosecutors use monetary punishments to reprimand companies and to send a message to other corporations contemplating similar wrongdoing. Any federal prosecutorial district could decide to go after a corporation conducting business in its district, and the District of Maryland recently closed up two massive investigations that resulted in fines as well as criminal sanctions for employees in one of the cases.

The first settlement was announced about a week ago at the Baltimore office of the U.S. Attorney for the District of Maryland, where the government agreed to close its investigation into a large pharmaceutical company in exchange for a $44 million dollar payment to the DOJ. This investigation centered on the company violating the Controlled Substance Act by failing to notify the DEA of large shipments of oxycodone to pharmacies in Maryland, Florida and New York. Federal law requires that pharmaceutical suppliers report all large or suspicious orders for controlled substances such as oxycodone, morphine, Xanax and fentanyl to the DEA, which is tasked with monitoring or attempting to monitor the commerce of legal drugs. 44 million dollars may seem excessive considering the company did not appear to commit any type of fraud, or conceal their wrongdoing. On the other hand, the company did over $120 billion in sales this past year and also agreed to a similar settlement with the DEA in 2008 over failing to report large shipments of hydrocodone commonly sold as Vicodin. This settlement probably angered some shareholders and cost some people their jobs, but it was merely a ding in their bottom line for 2016.

The other settlement announced by the U.S. Attorney involved a defense contracting company that was hired by the government to provide services at Joint Base Andrews in Prince George’s County. This well known facility is shared by the Marines and the Air Force, and is home to Air Force One. The company was accused of fraudulently submitting inflated invoices to the government for services that were not actually provided or completed in fewer hours than documented. A payment of $4.535 million to the United States ended the investigation into the company, but three former employees are now facing criminal prosecution for their role in the scam. Two of the former employees pled guilty to conspiracy to commit wire fraud and are awaiting sentencing, while the third faces trial later this next month. The federal government awards hundreds of defense contracts to private companies each year and it is nearly impossible to audit every possible job. Uncle Sam is an easy target for these companies because government workers are rarely held accountable for not thoroughly checking their invoices. After all, it’s the taxpayer’s money and not theirs or their company’s money.

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handgun-231699_640-300x169Maryland has some of the toughest gun laws in the country, and concealed carry licenses nearly impossible to obtain. A law abiding citizen basically has to prove that he or she has a legitimate need to carry a gun to even be considered for a carry license, and a large percentage of applications are denied. Many people, especially out of state residents, carry or transport firearms within the state illegally without even knowing it, and others know full well they are breaking the law but do it anyway. Either way, the strict laws on who can carry or transport a firearm and how they must legally do it make simple gun possession an extremely common offense in our state. But the strict laws don’t always mean harsh sentences for defendants. While some jurisdictions place a particularly high level of scrutiny on gun cases, most treat these cases like any other. And there are plenty of pro gun judges that decline handing down sentences that fall in line with the state legislature’s overzealous intent. However, under the current administration the federal government has continued to place an emphasis on vigorously prosecuting gun cases, especially cases involving illegal possession by a convicted felon.

Most people would associate federal criminal prosecutions with charges such as drug trafficking, fraud, money laundering, racketeering, and perhaps white-collar offenses, complex theft schemes, and crimes committed in multiple states. But the U.S. Attorney’s Office in Baltimore City has shown a willingness to get down and dirty in prosecuting simple firearms cases that involve one defendant and one gun. The feds are not too busy to make sure convicted felons possessing guns in Baltimore see the inside of a jail cell, and they know the only way to accomplish this may be to to make sure it’s a federal jail.

Federal prosecutors in Baltimore have been inclined to take cases from city prosecutors, often sending letters offering their services. And when they take a case out of state court it usually means bad news for the defendant. State law provides a fifteen-year maximum penalty for a felon or other disqualified person in possession of a firearm, and if the disqualifying offense was within 5 years then a minimum mandatory prison sentence may apply. Defendants in state court rarely receive anywhere near the maximum jail sentence, and rightly so. In most of these cases the defendant is only disqualified from possessing a firearm due to street level drug offenses that have no business being classified as felonies. But in federal court a defendant in an unlawful gun possession case is far more likely to serve serious prison time, and two recent cases support that contention. The U.S. Attorney’s Office recently announced that a 28-year old Baltimore man was sentenced to 15 years in prison for possessing a loaded .45 caliber handgun. The man never brandished the handgun or used it in the commission of another offense, but rather threw it in an alley as he allegedly ran from city police officers. And just one day before that case another man pled guilty to possession of a stolen gun in the same federal court downtown. This man was also prohibited from possessing a firearm due to previous felony convictions, and is due to be sentenced in the coming months. He too could face a lengthy prison sentence, although it won’t be the 15 years his younger counterpart received. The Blog will continue to follow the federal government’s prosecution of gun possession cases, as we may see a shift when the new administration takes over in January.

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package-1850776_1280-208x300While mall parking lots have been noticeably empty and department store lines practically nonexistent this holiday season, online shopping is as popular as ever. Cyber Monday has basically transformed into cyber November and December as consumers are saving money and time by clicking to buy instead of venturing out in the cold and rain. The benefits of online shopping are undeniable but do come with some downside. There is an increased risk of fraudulent transactions as consumers become less cautious with their credit cards. We used to think twice about buying online, but the suspicion over whom we buy from is all but gone. Consumers buy from all types of online vendors and they do so on public WIFI networks that are susceptible to hacking with a low degree of computer savvy. Another downside of the massive online shopping market is that it has created a new opportunity for thieves to ruin someone’s holiday spirit.

Package theft has become a major issue over the last few years, which is magnified during the holiday season but happens all year around. Just last summer we posted about a two-man crew arrested for stealing packages from doorsteps in Pikesville near the Baltimore City line. Police were tipped off to the Pikesville duo by a neighbor, which resulted in the men being charged with theft and burglary. One of the codefendants is currently serving a 60-day sentence for theft less than $1,000, and the other’s case is still pending.

Fast-forward to this week where we recently learned that Howard County Police recovered nearly 80 packages that were stolen from the doorsteps of homes in various Columbia neighborhoods. Two men from Baltimore were arrested after once again a vigilant homeowner alerted police to suspicious activity in the neighborhood. The caller reportedly witnessed two men driving around in a truck and taking boxes off doorsteps. Less than two minutes after police received the call for service multiple community resource officers arrived on scene, and were joined shortly thereafter by police. A search of the truck revealed a stash of 77 stolen packages with a total value in the thousands. The men, who are both in their mid twenties, were immediately arrested and charged with theft and theft scheme and now await trial in the Ellicott City District Court.

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thirteen-bags-of-marijuana-found-in-taxi-cabAs states move toward placing marijuana policy in the hands of voters and for the most part legalizing it, Maryland is still stuck in the dark ages where pot ties up court resources, and has lawmakers and lawyers up in arms. Medical marijuana has already invaded the civil courts, as multiple lawsuits over the grower licensing system are pending. And while we are seeing a significantly lower amount of marijuana cases prosecuted since possession under 10 grams became decriminalized, pot is still a common cause of litigation in criminal courts. Not only are there still numerous new cases filed each year for criminal possession, manufacturing and distribution of marijuana, but there are also a host of new legal issues involving law enforcement search and seizures.

When the legislature decriminalized simple possession it immediately created a grey area for probable cause searches under the Fourth Amendment. Normally a police officer is justified to search a person and his or her automobile if the officer gathers information that objectively leads to the conclusion that that a crime has likely occurred. This, save for a few minor twists, is probable cause in a nutshell. The Maryland decriminalization law left a major ambiguity in whether the discovery of a non-criminal amount of marijuana would justify a broader search of the suspect and his or her car. These broader searches usually turn up other evidence such as narcotics and firearms, which is why the issue is far reaching. We’re not just dealing with pot cases here. In fact, the Court of Appeals in Annapolis recently heard oral arguments on three cases where officers conducted Fourth Amendment searches based solely on the odor of marijuana. The trial courts and the Special Court of Appeals all ruled in favor of the prosecution that the searches were valid, and now the highest court will issue their opinion in the next few weeks.

Defense lawyers and civil rights advocates have argued that smelling burnt or raw pot, or finding less than 10 grams of it without more does not rise to the level of evidence that a crime has occurred, and would not justify a broader search. Rather, an officer who smells or recovers a non-criminal amount of pot must issue a civil citation, confiscate the weed and move on.  The government has argued that no amount of marijuana is legal in Maryland, and therefore police are authorized to search for and seize anything unlawful. The government has emphasized that a civil offense is still an offense, and the fine for simple possession is used to punish unlawful behavior. An assistant attorney general also argued that presence of the drug is enough evidence to provide officers with probable cause that more will be found, an argument does not seem to have any sort of factual basis.

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Heroin2Officials reported five heroin overdose deaths during this past holiday week in Harford County, where the overdose rate has hit a staggering one case per week. Like other counties in Maryland, Harford County is on pace to double its number of overdoses from last year. But as state health officials and law enforcement scramble to combat the heroin epidemic there is a new threat looming that could end up being exponentially more deadly.

In previous posts we have mentioned the increased street presence of fentanyl, a powerful synthetic opioid that is 50 times more potent than heroin and an estimated 100 times stronger than morphine. Fentanyl became popular in the form of skin patches to treat severe localized pain. It didn’t take long for users to figure out that if the drug was removed from the patches it could be injected for a much stronger high, and dealers later learned that the relatively cheap fentanyl could be mixed with their heroin. Infusing small amounts of fentanyl allowed the dealers to maintain the strength of their product even when using a larger portion of cheap cutting agents. Mixing fentanyl with heroin creates a powerful and unpredictable effect on the user, and it has been the cause of hundreds of overdose deaths when mixed or injected on its own. Government officials are now beginning to take measures to combat fentanyl use, but just as they catch up on fentanyl there is a new synthetic opioid hitting the streets that is far more powerful.

In September the DEA issued a warning to the public and law enforcement about a relatively new substance named carfentanil, which was designed to tranquilize elephants and other large animals. Carfentanil showed its ugly face on the streets for the first time just months ago, and now officials are worried that its arrival in Maryland could spike overdose deaths to unthinkable levels. The concern about this particular synthetic opioid is its potency, which is estimated to be 100 times more powerful than fentanyl and 10,000 times more powerful than morphine. Carfentanil has already contributed to overdose deaths in Vancouver, and it has been discovered on U.S. streets as well. Law enforcement suspects that the drug fell into the hands of dealers by way of China, where it can allegedly be ordered online in a powder form. The powder is so potent that even handling it without gloves or a mask could trigger an overdose. Another frightening reality is that carfentanil overdoses could be deadly even if treated the anti-overdose drug naloxone. It some cases it could take as much as six times the normal dosage of naloxone to reverse a carfentanil overdose, an amount that may not be readily available to first responders and police officers.

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mobile-1726138_1280The recent arrest of two local police officers in separate felony offenses left a stain on Maryland law enforcement heading into the Thanksgiving weekend. These arrests have also served as a constant reminder that police are not above the law, at least when it comes to incidents that cannot be swept under the rug. While the cases are still in their infancy stage, both veteran officer’s careers are in jeopardy and one officer faces the possibility of a lengthy prison sentence. The arrests generated considerable news coverage despite the fact that the officers worked for departments outside of the Baltimore DC metropolitan area, and the coverage will likely continue until the cases are resolved. The crimes are serious but unfortunately not uncommon, so it’s the scandal factor with a police officer as a defendant that keeps the public’s interest.

Of the two arrests, without a doubt the most serious case involves a deputy from the Charles County Sheriff’s Office. This deputy was charged in federal court via criminal complaint with possession of child pornography, which carries a maximum punishment of 10 years in prison. The U.S. Attorney’s Office announced the complaint along with agents from Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), and Homeland Security Investigations (HSI). An investigator from the Charles County Sheriff was also credited with solving the case that began after a private cloud security company tipped off federal officials to the presence of child porn downloads on a cell phone tied to a Maryland phone number. The deputy, who has been suspended without pay, was released pending trial at his initial appearance at the federal courthouse in Greenbelt. He will not be allowed to use the internet or have unsupervised contact with minors during the course of his pre-trial release.

The second arrest involved a member of the Wicomico County Sheriff’s office, who has been charged with felony theft $10,000 to $100,000. The 53 year-old sergeant was suspended with pay as soon as his office found out about the theft, which was alleged to have occured at the local Fraternal Order of Police lodge from October of 2014 to this October. After the sergeant was arrested on November 18th he was immediately suspended without pay pending the outcome of the case. A prosecutor from the Baltimore County State’s Attorney’s Office has been specially assigned to prosecute the case, which will take place in the circuit court in Salisbury. There are no dates currently set for the case but the Blog will follow along and may post an article in the future if necessary. Theft $10,000 to $100,000 carries a maximum punishment of 15 years in prison. The sergeant likely does not have any type of criminal record, which may be enough to keep him out of jail. But should he be found guilty the sentencing judge will not take lightly the fact that the officer was in a position of trust at the FOP and egregiously violated that trust. Another factor that may contribute to a harsher sentence is the allegation of a course of illegal conduct that spanned two years. In other words, this was not an impulsive act but a continuous decision to break the law. These facts are akin to an employee theft case, and are generally treated more harshly than other theft cases.

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weed4Medical marijuana has had a tough time catching on in Maryland as roadblocks have sprung up each step of the way. First the legislature failed to craft a legitimate medical cannabis program, and a year later when a real program arrived they failed to adequately fund a commission to draft its rules. Then the underfunded and inexperienced commission drastically miscalculated the number of expected grower and distributor applications, which lead to massive delays in the awarding of licenses. When the licenses were finally awarded three potential growers sued for unjust denial of their applications, and their cases are pending in court. Many of these roadblocks were predictable, and could have been avoided with greater cooperation among politicians and more resources dedicated to the launching the program. However the latest roadblock was not expected and could end up disrupting the medical marijuana program if and when it finally gets rolling.

A public records request revealed that only 172 Maryland doctors have signed up to potentially prescribe medical marijuana, which translates to about 1 percent of the 16,000 docs practicing medicine in the state. State officials are concerned that the lack of prescribing doctors could cause a serious bottleneck in the process of getting medical pot to the patient. We will certainly have enough growers, distributors and buyers, but the chain is not complete without the doctors writing the scripts. Potential patients could be forced to wait weeks or even months to see a doctor, and the huge numbers game could cause these doctors to fly through screenings at a pace similar to the pill mills that lawmakers and medical boards are trying to eliminate. Officials at MedChi fear that the end result will be the medical marijuana program becoming a façade for recreational use, as doctors with long lines of patients will be ill prepared to distinguish those with a medical need from those who simply want to enjoy high quality pot.

Once the program gets going there will likely be more doctors jumping on board. The free market will work itself out and doctors will eventually see the positives in running a lucrative and legitimate business that does not involve being on call at all hours of the night. An influx of new doctors who are more open to alternative types of medicine will also be more likely to stand behind the benefits of marijuana and less hesitant to prescribe it. A lack of doctors is not likely to be the downfall of the state’s already troubled medical marijuana program, as legalization will eventually be the kill shot for medical pot. Patients who benefit from ingesting cannabis may have to jump through hoops and wait in long lines for a year or two in order to legally obtain relief, but the day is coming when a trip to the dispensary and a valid ID is all it will take for access to all forms of cannabis. The federal government may be slow to change its designation of marijuana as a schedule 1 controlled substance, but the new administration will let the states decide their own pot policies. The people have spoken in influential states such as California and Massachusetts and it’s only a matter of time before the issue goes to a vote in Maryland.

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packs-163497_1280Despite years of scrutiny and two legislative task force inquiries the Maryland cash bail system has remained untouched. Thousands of defendants sit in jails statewide for months on end awaiting trial simply because they cannot afford to post bail. Many end up being released after their cases are dismissed, and others remain until accepting a guilty plea to time served or probation. In some cases the bails set by court commissioners or judges are exorbitantly high and in other cases the defendants simply cannot scrape together any amount of cash or collateral for a bail bondsman. The bail bond industry has been raking in profits for decades by preying off the desperate desire of defendants to get out of jail, and the industry’s hefty contributions to lawmakers have largely shielded it from reproach. But within the last month two influential members of the state’s legal community have spoken out against the current cash bail system, and their words have already translated to real change in the district and circuit criminal courts.

In mid October the newly elected Attorney General sent a memo to five state lawmakers declaring that judges and court commissioners must consider the defendant’s finances when determining an appropriate bail. The memo goes on to say that if bail is too high for the defendant the Court of Appeals in Annapolis would likely find it unlawful, and further states that an amount too high for the defendant to post would be excessive and a violation of Eighth Amendment of the United States Constitution. While the Attorney General’s memo was advisory and did not establish any type of rule of law, the Chief Judge of the District Court of Maryland took notice and sent a memo of his own. This memo instructs other District Court judges to treat monetary bail as a means to insure the defendant’s return to court, and not as a means to assure the public safety. Defense attorneys have been making this argument for years to court commissioners and judges across the state with little success. Too often our state judges use high bail amounts as a means to keep a defendant in custody pending his or her trial. These excessive bails are punitive and unconstitutional, but have become status quo in Maryland courts.

Excessive bails are set by judges and court commissioners all over the state, but this epidemic is particularly out of control in Baltimore City and to a lesser extent Baltimore County. Defendants arrested on drug charges such as possession with intent to distribute are often held on six-figure bail amounts, and end up paying thousands to bail bondsmen who lure customers with 1% down payment plans. It is not only drug charges that result in outrageous bail amounts, but also gun charges and alleged violent offenses where there is little objective evidence of guilt. The roots of the problem are the judges and commissioners that have been approaching bail hearings entirely wrong for years; they read the charges and set a bail amount solely on the alleged facts in the statement of probable cause. It becomes lost that defendants are to be presumed innocent at every step of the judicial process, including at a bail hearing.  But this finally appears to be changing as the Chief Judge’s memorandum is starting to show its influence in court. Defendants that do not pose a threat to the community and are not a legitimate flight risk are being released on their own recognizance. This falls in line with the least onerous means to assure the return of the defendant to court. Some defendants who are determined to be serious dangers to the community are being held in custody, but the judges are now putting their findings on the record, as instructed by the Chief Judge.