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courtroom-898931_1280-300x226A former high ranking official for the Maryland Governor has pleaded not-guilty to four federal charges of wire fraud and two charges of misappropriation.  The 52-year-old former chief of staff to the Governor is accused of various missteps including using funds belonging to the State of Maryland to make a charitable contribution to a museum where he was a member of the board of directors.  The funds came from the Maryland Environmental Service corporation, where the defendant served as executive director prior to taking a position with the governor’s office in Annapolis.  Perhaps the most egregious allegation was that the defendant caused the board at his former employer to approve paying him a full year’s salary, over $200k, upon leaving to take the job with the governor.  The defendant apparently told the board that the governor himself approved to so called severance package, though the governor has vigorously denied any such approval.  In total, the former chief of staff is facing up to 100 years in prison and tens of thousands of dollars in fines.  He will obviously not serve anywhere close to the maximum amount of jail if convicted, but the charges are certainly severe.  The government informed the Federal Judge in the Baltimore courthouse that trial would take two weeks to complete, though there is no indication on whether advanced plea negotiations are taking place.  Discovery is apparently voluminous, and the defense needs time to assess the case before advising the client.

The same defendant is also facing a 27-count criminal information in the Circuit Court for Anne Arundel County for various other state offense including misconduct in office and violations of Maryland’s wiretapping laws.  There are allegations that the defendant secretly recorded conversations with the Governor and other high ranking state officials.  The state case has not been set for trial yet, and has a status conference scheduled in the middle of December.  There will likely be a ton of evidence for the defense to sift through in order to properly evaluate the case, so we do not expect a swift resolution.  Both cases may end up in trial or the defense may be able to work out some sort of global plea agreement.  Right now it is simply too early to tell which direction these cases are headed, but the Blog will post a follow-up article as news becomes available.

Maryland has strict laws regarding the recording or intercepting of private conversations and telephone calls, and each violation is a felony punishable by up to 5 years in prison and a $10,000 fine.  Even if another person uses or publishes a recording that has been intercepted unlawfully it could be a crime as long the publisher should have known a the recording was illegal.  Maryland is considered a two-party state when it comes to recording or intercepting conversations, which means both parties must be aware of the recording.  There are exceptions including when the police are conducting active investigations for a host of different crimes including murder, kidnapping, sex offenses, robbery, bribery, fraud, felony theft, firearms crimes and drug distribution.  In these cases the police may intercept wire, oral or electronic evidence in order to provide evidence of the crime.  The Maryland wiretapping law is codified under Title 10 of the Courts and Judicial Proceedings section of the state laws, and not the criminal law section.  Subtitle 4 of the evidence part of this section covers wiretapping and electronic surveillance, and section 10-402 is the actual wiretapping law.

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handcuffs-2102488__480-300x169Earlier this week the mayor of Cambridge was arrested and charged with 50 misdemeanor counts for violating a Maryland statute commonly known as the revenge porn law.  The 32-year-old defendant is a graduate of Penn State University and a lifelong resident of Dorchester County.  When elected in January he became the youngest mayor in the history of Cambridge, and now it appears his time in office will end just shy of one year.  The charges were filed in the Circuit Court for Dorchester County via criminal information on November 15, which is the same day the arrest warrant was served.  This means the mayor likely knew about the pending charges in advance, and had time to hire counsel and plan a date to surrender to law enforcement.  The mayor was released on his own recognizance the same day he surrendered, likely as a result of his lack of prior record, strong ties to the community and voluntary surrender with counsel.  A scheduling conference is set for the first week in December, and from there status, motions and trial dates will be set.  Trial will likely be set sometime around April or May, but there is a good chance the case may be resolved before then.

According to the 27-page charging document the mayor’s ex-girlfriend contacted law enforcement back in May when she discovered nude photographs of herself on a social media platform.  The victim apparently told law enforcement she only sent the pictures to one person, the mayor, and never gave him permission to distribute or post them.   Law enforcement then traced the origin of the posts back to an IP address tied to the mayor’s home in Cambridge.  In total the defendant was charged with 50 counts in violation of Maryland law section 3-809, which is part of the stalking and harassment section of the criminal code.  This offense was created back in 2014, and is a misdemeanor punishable by up to 2 years in prison and a $5,000 fine for each count.  In order to establish a violation of this offense the state must prove the defendant knowingly and without consent distributed a visual representation of another engaged in sexual activity or with intimate parts exposed with the intent to harm, harass or intimidate the person depicted.  It seems clear from the charging document that the images meet the criteria, and the victim did not consent.  Therefore, all that is left to prove is that the defendant himself knowingly posted the pictures.

The case is being prosecuted by the Office of the Maryland State Prosecutor, which is an independent office that was established in 1976 in order to combat public corruption.  The creation of this office may have stemmed directly from the outrage over the Watergate scandal during Nixon’s presidency.  Functions of the office include investigating, and if warranted, prosecuting government officials, employees or institutions that are alleged to have engaged in offenses such as bribery, extortion, perjury, obstruction of justice, voting law violations, misconduct in office and any other criminal offense.  The State Prosecutor’s Office is located in Towson, and is a separate entity from the Attorney General’s Office.  Located in Baltimore City, the AG prosecutes public corruption as well as complex multi-jurisdictional criminal schemes such as gang activity and drug distribution rings.

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DUI4-300x300A former high-ranking officer with the Maryland Natural Resources Police has been found guilty of DUI and negligent driving after a plea agreement was reached in the District Court for Worcester County in Snow Hill.  The officer, who was second in command at the NRP, was granted probation before judgement for the DUI count, and received a conviction for the negligent driving count.  Pursuant to the plea agreement, the charges for leaving the scene of an accident with property damage and improper backing were dismissed by the State.  As part of the sentence the former decorated law enforcement officer will be required to complete 100 hours of community service and was placed on 2 years of unsupervised probation.  It appears as though the defendant already completed an alcohol education program, as that was not ordered during sentencing.

According to the facts presented at the plea agreement the former police officer was stopped at a red light near Ocean City when he proceeded to back into another vehicle.  In a regrettable decision, the defendant left the scene, and was later found parked in a lot near Route 113.  When troopers arrived, they detected an odor of an alcoholic beverage and began to administer standardized roadside sobriety exercises.  They soon after arrested the officer and issued him four citations.  By leaving the scene, the former officer was in violation of the Maryland Transportation Article section 20-103, which requires all persons involved in an accident to remain in the area of the accident until they have rendered reasonable aid and exchanged identifying information.  A violation of 20-103 is a misdemeanor punishable by up to 60 days in jail, but the State felt it was appropriate to dismiss this citation as part of the plea.  Instead, it appears they were insistent on prosecuting the negligent driving citation.  Negligent driving carries 1 point or 3 points if the act contributed to an accident, so the former officer will have at least 1 point assessed on his driving record.

Fortunately, the accident appeared to be minor and nobody was injured.  If there had been bodily injury the former officer could have been charged under 20-102, leaving the scene of an accident with bodily injury.  This offense is punishable by up to 1 year in jail unless the accident resulted in serious bodily injury or death.  Leaving the scene of an accident with serious bodily injury is a felony punishable by up to 5 years in prison, and if a death occurred the maximum penalty jumps to 10 years.  Under these enhanced penalties the state is required to prove the defendant knew or should have known the accident caused serious bodily injury or death.  Maryland is one of a few states that also criminalizes negligent driving without any proof of drug or alcohol impairment.  Almost all vehicle accidents that result in the death of an individual will be forwarded to the State’s Attorney’s Office for review.  If it appears that the at fault driver deviated from the normal standard of care that is expected when on the road, he or she could be charged with a misdemeanor offense of criminal negligence that carries up to 3 years in jail.  The penalty jumps to a 10-year felony  if there is evidence of gross negligence, which could mean racing or weaving in and out of traffic at a high rate of speed.  A defendant who is at fault for an accident involving death and leaves the scene could face punishment on both charges, as they are separate criminal acts.

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graphics-882726_640-300x207The notorious Anne Arundel County arson case that has spanned more than 4 years has finally come to a close, as the defendant received his sentence late last week.  On Friday at the Baltimore City federal courthouse the 36-year-old defendant from Pasadena, Maryland was sentenced to 9 years in prison followed by 3 years of supervised release.  He was also ordered to pay more than $500 thousand in restitution for his role in burning down a popular neighborhood bar.  The man was charged under 18 U.S. Code § 844 (i), which makes it a federal offense to maliciously damage or destroy any real property used in interstate or foreign commerce by fire or explosives.  The maximum penalty for this offense is up to 20 years in prison that includes a 5-year mandatory sentence.  If any person is injured, including a public officer such as a firefighter, the maximum penalty becomes 40 years with a 7-year mandatory term.  Unfortunately, a firefighter was actually injured while attempting to extinguish the blaze after he was thrown off a ladder by the force of a backdraft.

The Blog detailed the facts of this case in a previous post back in April when the plea was announced, so we won’t go over the entire case again.  The basic facts were that the defendant was charged with second-degree assault and theft for an incident that occurred at the bar 6 days before the fire.  He apparently returned to the bar in an attempt to destroy the surveillance equipment that he believed would incriminate him in the assault case, but ended up burning the entire bar down except for the cameras he sought to destroy.  So, not only was the assault captured on the surveillance, but he was also on video making Molotov cocktails and throwing them at the bar.  ATF trained K9s also located the presence of gasoline (a common accelerant used in incendiary devices) in the area where the defendant was standing on video.

The defendant ended up being found guilty of the assault in the Circuit Court for Anne Arundel County and was given a three-year suspended sentence.  The theft charge was nolle. prossed by the state as part of the plea agreement, although the defendant was found guilty of another unrelated theft that occurred a few weeks after the fire.  He will now serve upwards of 7.5 years behind bars before being released to state and federal probation.  Although the exact guideline range that the defendant was assigned is not discussed in the U.S. Attorney’s press release, the base offense level for malicious destruction of property by fire appears to be at least 24.  There were aggravating factors that elevated his guidelines including the fact that the fire was started in an attempt to conceal evidence of another offense, which adds two levels.  By our estimation it seems the defendant received a sentence at or near the top of the guidelines.

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weed4-300x194A recent poll conducted by Goucher College over the past several weeks found that 60% of Maryland residents favor the legalization of marijuana for recreational use.  This is the second marijuana legalization poll conducted this year by the private college located just outside of downtown Towson.  Back in March the college’s pollsters revealed that 67% of state residents supported legalization.  While support has seemingly dipped slightly, when factoring in the margins of error the numbers are likely similar enough to tell the same story; in Maryland and in the United States as a whole legalization is preferred 2 to 1 over the continued criminalization of marijuana.

Closer examination of the data from Goucher reveals that like most issues in the county, support for the legalization of marijuana is divided along party lines.  While two thirds of Democrats favor legalization, only 40% of republicans are in favor of it.  Those who identified as conservatives were split down the middle, which is not surprising considering the potential tax revenue that the state would generate. Additionally, many conservatives likely do not believe the government should be wasting money and resources enforcing marijuana laws when there are far more pressing issues in Maryland.  The poll also reported that 85% of self-described progressives support legalization, which is surprising.  It’s hard to imagine that even 15% of progressives believe the police should still be arresting citizens for possession of pot.

Legalizing marijuana for recreational use will generate millions of dollars in tax revenue for the state, while providing a safe environment to purchase regulated cannabis products.  It will not lead to increased criminal activity in the area of the dispensaries, and will not appreciably contribute to an increase in DUI cases or the illegal use of pot among teenagers.  These potential red flags have not shown up in states that already have established recreational cannabis policies.  The fact remains that legalization is a major talking point before it goes into effect, but once it becomes law people for the most part stop talking about it.  For the next year cannabis legalization will continue to show up in the headlines, but now according to multiple Goucher polls it appears an end is in sight.  The referendum that is scheduled for next November will almost certainly pass, and the conversation can then shift to other issues that really are more pressing.  However, within the criminal justice system the conversation will continue for several years.

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concertina-wire-1031773_960_720-200x300Two former Maryland correctional officers recently pled guilty to racketeering conspiracy for their roles in smuggling contraband into the Chesapeake Detention Facility (CDF).   The pleas were entered in the Baltimore City federal courthouse where the pair will be sentenced in a few months.  CDF is the federal pre-trial detention facility where most federal defendants in Maryland who are awaiting trial.  It is a maximum-security facility across the street from Baltimore City Central Booking that houses approximately 500 inmates.  Although it is a federal facility that is controlled by the United States Marshals Service, the jail is run by the Maryland Department of Public Safety and Community Supervision pursuant to a business contract.  The Maryland DPSCS runs all the state correctional facilities and is one of the largest agencies in the state.  The department currently boasts a workforce of approximately 12,000 and a budget of more than $1 billion per year.  Correctional officers at CDF are not federal employees but the jail is considered federal property.  Therefore, offenses committed on the grounds or within the jail are typically prosecuted in federal court.

The first plea took place last week and involved a 35-year-old female officer from Randallstown in Baltimore County.  According to the plea agreement she admitted that beginning in 2017 she smuggled contraband into CDF for multiple detainees, and met with outside facilitators to receive bribe payments and cellphones used to communicate with a specific inmate.  DPSCS investigators eventually caught on to the scheme and had federal agents execute a search warrant of the officer’s home in 2020 where they seized cash, marijuana, cell phones and notes from several CDF detainees.  The second plea took place this week for a 45-year-old officer from Baltimore.  This officer admitted to smuggling liquor into the facility for a detainee and receiving four payments totaling approximately two thousand dollars.  Pursuant to his plea, he also admitted to meeting an outside facilitator to pick up a bag containing suboxone strips and tobacco intended to be smuggled inside CDF the next day.  Unbeknownst to the officer, investigators had already caught on to his involvement with the smuggling operation and the contraband was interdicted by officers in the facility’s parking lot.  The defendant later admitted that the contents of the black bag were intended to be smuggled inside the facility.

Both of the defendants face a maximum of 20 years in federal prison for racketeering conspiracy, though they will serve far less than the maximum.  Both are likely first-time offenders, and based on the limited facts available from the U.S. Attorney’s Office press release their guideline ranges are estimated to be 24 to 30 months.  This is based on an offense score of 19 with a two-level reduction for entering into a plea agreement.  Unless the defendants have agreed to a binding “C” plea, the attorneys will likely argue for downward departures in an attempt to keep active incarceration under two years or possibly even home confinement.  The government takes public corruption cases extremely seriously, and offenses involving correctional employees are no exception.  While nobody was injured during the course of this scheme, the government will almost certainly make the argument that providing cell phones and other contraband to inmates endangered the lives of correctional officers and other inmates.  The defense lawyers must be prepared to address these arguments and to humanize their clients in the eyes of the Court.

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heroin3-300x169This week in the Baltimore City federal courthouse a 40-year-old Salisbury man pleaded guilty to possession with intent to distribute heroin using the dark web.  According to facts presented in the plea agreement the defendant was an active interstate drug distributor on the infamous dark web, which is a part of the internet designed to conceal the identity and location of users through specialized software programs.  However, once an individual becomes a suspect in a criminal operation law enforcement officers can then access the web and pose as potential co-conspirators, or in this case buyers.  In this particular investigation it appears Homeland Security had an agent pose as a buyer, and other law enforcement agencies in and around Maryland joined forces to build a case.

Per the plea agreement the defendant admitted to distributing heroin throughout the country from his Salisbury apartment and storage unit on the dark web beginning in 2018.  During the summer of 2018 an undercover federal agent made two separate purchases of heroin from the defendant via the dark web using bitcoin.  The next day after each sale, law enforcement followed the defendant as he proceeded to mail packages from post offices in Salisbury and Ocean City.  The packages were seized and opened after search warrants were obtained, and both contained heroin.  The defendant continued to conduct heroin sales over the dark web, but his username was inactive for 3 months at the end of 2018.  It turned out that the defendant was incarcerated on unrelated charges in Worcester County during this time.  Less than a week after his release the defendant’s dark web profile again became active.  Following more package seizures and other incriminating evidence, law enforcement obtained a search warrant of the defendant’s home and storage unit in the fall of 2019.  Upon execution of the search warrant, police recovered approximately 77 grams of heroin, 41 grams of cocaine, 5 grams of ecstasy (MDMA), 33 grams of meth, 3 pounds of marijuana, cutting agents, scales, drug paraphernalia, $13,796 in cash and a .40 caliber handgun that was stolen from a Federal Air Marshal.  Law enforcement also recovered body armor, mailing materials and electronics such as a laptop and several phones.  A forensic search of one of the phones revealed a digital wallet containing over $100,000 in bitcoin.

The U.S. Attorney’s Office and the defendant entered into an agreement where the defendant will serve 5 years of incarceration if the federal judge accepts the plea at sentencing in February.  This agreement or “c plea” is akin to a binding ABA sentencing agreement in state court.  The defendant has a relatively minor record in Maryland that includes convictions for misdemeanor assault 2nd degree in Wicomico County and misdemeanor malicious destruction of property in Worcester County.  It is unclear whether he has prior convictions out of state.  The 2nd degree assault conviction would prohibit the defendant from owning or possessing a firearm, though it is unclear whether the defendant was charged with illegal firearm possession.  The plea agreement may have contemplated this factor, along with other facts and circumstances such as the amount of drugs recovered and the overall scale of the criminal operation.

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pistol-1350484_1280-300x200Maryland has become notorious in the region for having overly harsh gun laws, and easily ranks among the top ten states in the country for the strictest set of laws.  The gun laws in neighboring states to the south and west such as Virginia, West Virginia and North Carolina are not even in the same league as Maryland.  The same is true for other East Coast states including South Carolina, Georgia and Florida.  In these states it is legal and fairly common to transport a firearm in a vehicle, and in some it’s perfectly legal to carry a handgun on your person without a permit.  Maryland’s gun laws are far more in line with New Jersey and New York when it comes to carrying and transporting handguns and other firearms, and violations of these laws often mean immediate arrest and potential jail time.  The Second Amendment however does still offer some protection for Maryland gun owners who wish to legally arm themselves in public, provided they fit the eligibility requirements and are willing to navigate the miles of red tape it takes to obtain a permit.

In this post we will give a brief overview of the process to obtain a license to carry a handgun, and the possible hurdles a potential applicant may face.  The Handgun Qualification License or HQL does not allow a person to do anything but purchase a firearm, and will not be discussed further in this post.  The majority of Maryland gun laws are listed under the Public Safety Article, which contains dozens of statutes ranging from simple to highly confusing.  Title 5 deals with all the firearm laws and subtitle 3 codifies the handgun permit regulations.  According to §5-303 a permit is required any time a civilian wishes to carry a handgun.  Transportation of a gun may still be legal without a permit provided the owner has complied with the criminal statute that mandates the firearm be in a case, unloaded and inaccessible by the driver.  The gun owner would also be limited to traveling to and from his or her home or a gun range/shop.

The first step in obtaining a Maryland handgun carry license is to determine eligibility.  There is no sense in wasting the time and money to apply only to be denied due to ineligibility.  An applicant must be an adult and cannot have a felony conviction or a conviction for a misdemeanor if more than 1-year of incarceration was imposed.  Federal law would also prohibit an applicant who has any criminal conviction for an offense that carries more than 2 years of incarceration, regardless of the length of the actual sentence.  Most people who are interested in applying for a carry permit are well aware of these few provisions, and probably would not bother applying in the first place.  What they may not be aware of is that Maryland law also prohibits anyone with a drug conviction of any kind from obtaining a carry permit.  This includes possession of marijuana, and cases that may have occurred decades ago.  Applicants must also not be habitual users of drugs or alcohol or have exhibited a propensity for violence or instability.  This last provision may apply to anyone who has been served with a domestic violence protective order.

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thirteen-bags-of-marijuana-found-in-taxi-cabThis past week two Maryland men were arrested in Indiana for dealing in marijuana after his van was pulled over on Interstate 70 for following another vehicle too closely.  Local sheriff’s deputies allegedly observed several criminal indicators after pulling the vehicle over, which included the odor of raw marijuana and the presence of plant like material on the pants of the driver.  A search of the van took place shortly after the traffic stop, and police discovered 16 cardboard boxes that contained numerous vacuum sealed plastic bags of pot.  Back at the police station deputies weighed the bags and eventually tallied 400 pounds of cannabis.  This large roadside bust resulted in charges for the driver and passenger, who were booked into the county jail and later bonded out.  Both defendants now face potential jail time for charges when they return to court.

The Blog does not typically post about cases that involve drug busts in other states, but since the defendants hail from Maryland we thought it would be an appropriate way to write marijuana related automobile searches, which have been receiving a great deal of attention as of late.  Despite nationwide efforts to legalize marijuana it is still an illegal substance in the majority of states, and remains a controlled substance under federal law.  Therefore, police officers are still actively searching for suspected marijuana traffickers, and will be especially attracted to vehicles with out of state license plates traveling on interstates around the country.  An out-of-state cargo van traveling with two adult male occupants couldn’t be more suspicious to highway patrol officers, so it’s no surprise this vehicle was pulled over.  While it almost certainly will not appear in any official report, this particular vehicle likely caught the eye of the deputy sheriff long before it was involved in the alleged traffic infraction.  Law enforcement officers are legally able to make pretextual traffic stops, which means they can pull a vehicle over for a minor traffic stop with the full intention of conducting a criminal investigation.  It is for this reason that a large percentage of drug busts occur on interstate highways and other major thoroughfares.

In addition to pretextual stops, law enforcement officers in most states are able to search a vehicle upon observing signs indicating the presence of marijuana.  This is especially true in Maryland, where the highest court has unequivocally held that the odor of marijuana justifies the search of a vehicle.  Almost all law enforcement officers, and especially those from the Maryland State Police and the Maryland Transportation Authority police have special training in drug interdiction, which is the process of preventing drugs from reaching their intended destination.  Much of this training includes identifying vehicles that could be transporting marijuana, heroin and other illegal controlled substances.  On top of the list are vehicles traveling with out-of-state license plates or vehicles that are registered to rental companies.  Police officers on Interstate 95 and Interstate 70 are rarely just looking to nail speeders, but rather are searching for their next drug bust.  In this case, the Maryland men seemed destined for law enforcement attention and now they have criminal cases pending in a state with surprisingly lenient marijuana distribution laws.  Unlike in Maryland, the equivalent to possession with intent to distribute cannabis is actually a misdemeanor in Indiana for all first time offenders.  One of the men recently was charged with a drug offense in Baltimore County, but his case did not result in a conviction.  it is unclear whether either defendant has priors in others states.  The Blog will follow this case and others like it, and may post a follow up article in the near future.

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auto-2378367__480-300x169The 2021 H2O1 pop-up car rally is officially underway, and law enforcement is preparing to keep this unofficial event as safe as possible.  Despite a supposed move to New Jersey a few years back, the event still calls Ocean City home, and thousands will flock to Maryland’s Eastern Shore this week.  The event has a decade of history in Worcester County, and despite lawmakers and the city police department’s best efforts, it does not appear to being going away any time soon.  Lawmakers can’t simply ban the event because it is not an officially sanctioned event in the first place.  There are no licenses issued by the town, and there is no promoter or company that actually runs the event.  Short of closing down the town for the week or imposing some sort of over-intrusive curfew (which would never happen and would be unconstitutional) the town will once again be forced to make the event as safe as possible for participants and spectators alike.

In 2020 the number of arrests during the rally actually decreased from 121 the year before to an even 100.  On the other hand, the amount of traffic citations issued during the event rose to nearly 3.5 thousand.  Additionally, 350 cars were towed for various infractions including camber violations that make the cars illegal for street use.  Many visitors to Ocean City have noticed signage on Coastal Highway that displays the Special Event Zone message, and this law was actually created back in 2018 in response to the Ocean City Pop-up rally.  The town wanted to give police more authority to enforce the traffic laws, and believed that simply writing citations would not do the trick.  Lawmakers succumbed to the pressure and created the Special Event Zone to give police authority to arrest drivers for so called “exhibition driving”.

According section 21-1132 of the Transportation Article under Maryland law, exhibition driving is defined as operating a vehicle in a manner that results in excessive or abrupt acceleration or deceleration, skidding, burning or smoking of the tires, swerving or swaying, or revving the engine in an unreasonably loud or disturbing manner.  Grinding of the gears and causing the wheels to lose contact with the ground is also included in the statute.  Exhibition driving while in Special Event Zone is now punishable by up to 60 days in jail, and a fine of $1,000, and police officers will arrest a defendant for this type of driving.  We have seen numerous cases where defendants are arrested for exhibition driving even if their actions did not place anyone in danger.  To make matters worse, some out of state defendants are not released by the commissioner, and could held overnight in jail until seeing a judge the next day.  Not only will police arrest an individual for exhibition driving, the State’s Attorney’s Office will almost certainly prosecute these cases.  In addition to exhibition driving being an arrestable offense, the fine for speeding in a special offense zone increases to $1,000.  With the speed limit on coastal highway decreasing to 30 mph during the events, police are almost running out of paper to issue the tickets.

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