A 41-year old Baltimore man recently pled guilty to participating in a drug distribution conspiracy, and he now faces more than a decade in federal prison for his actions. Based on a recent press release from the U.S. Attorney’s Office the defendant is looking at 12.5 years after the government and the defense agreed that a 150-month sentence would be appropriate. The presiding judge in the Baltimore City federal courthouse will have final say over the sentence, but typically when both sides are in agreement the judge will go along as well. It is unclear whether the parties entered into a binding agreement under Rule 11(c), but either way the judge would maintain discretion to approve or reject the plea based upon a final calculation of the sentencing guidelines and a review of the presentence report.
According to facts laid out in the plea agreement the defendant participated in a drug trafficking organization or DTO from at least September of 2018 until June of 2019 in Baltimore City. The defendant also admitted to maintaining a stash house in Baltimore where heroin and crack cocaine were processed and stored. Law enforcement agencies including the ATF, FBI and the Baltimore Police all participated in the investigation, which ultimately yielded a search warrant for the stash house. The Anne Arundel County Police also participated to some degree in the case due to the cross proximity of the stash house to Anne Arundel County. Police seized over 200 grams of crack cocaine from the house, but it does not appear that any money or firearms were seized. It is also not clear whether there were other individuals that were charged along with this defendant, but there had to have been other suspects in order for the government to establish sufficient evidence of a conspiracy. Conspiracy charges are common in federal court, as it is often easier for the government to prove that a defendant planned and prepared to commit an illegal act as opposed to catching him or her in the act. Under Maryland state law conspiracy is not a separate enumerated crime, but rather a common law misdemeanor that may be charged in almost any criminal case.
It certainly appears that an agreed upon sentence of 12.5 years for a non-violent drug offense involving far less than 1 kilogram of cocaine and no firearms or weapons would be excessive. The agreement is a little easier to comprehend when factoring in the defendant’s prior record though. According to Maryland casesearch, the defendant was convicted of first-degree murder back in 1999 and then narcotics distribution and possession of a firearm in a drug trafficking crime in 2011. He received 12 years in each of these cases. The first-degree murder case was resolved by a plea agreement to 12 years in prison, though he also received 12 years for handgun use in a crime in the same case. These counts could have been run consecutive for a total of 24 years though it is not completely clear. Either way the defendant has spent most of his adult life in prison, and now will spend another decade behind bars. Regardless of his prior record, a 12 plus year sentence for mid-level drug trafficking seems unjust, and we can only hope that lawmakers continue to engage in criminal justice reform that reduces a defendant’s exposure in non-violent cases.
A 26-year old Salisbury man is in custody after being arrested for burglary and motor vehicle theft last week. The defendant was denied bail after seeing a district court judge, and will likely have to wait until his preliminary hearing in two weeks or his first appearance in the circuit court before having another opportunity to request a reasonable bail. Wicomico County Sheriff’s Deputies were originally called to a local car dealership to investigate a burglary, but later learned that a vehicle had gone missing after reviewing surveillance footage of the dealership. The man apparently entered the dealership through an unlocked door used by a cleaning service, and then appeared to drive several vehicles around and off the dealership lot. The man then settled on a Ford pickup truck and left the premises.
The sheriff’s office put out a BOLO or be on the lookout for the stolen pickup, and deputies spotted it a short time later on North Salisbury Blvd. near Naylor Mill Road. Police performed a traffic stop and took the man into custody whereupon they recovered keys to 32 other vehicles. All stolen property appears to have been recovered by police. The man was booked for burglary in the second degree, unlawful taking of a motor vehicle and theft from $1,500 to $25,000, which are all felonies charges. While the district court has jurisdiction to handle the two theft charges, the burglary felony burglary charge must either be dismissed or forwarded to the circuit court by way of indictment or criminal information.
Under Maryland law, second-degree burglary is defined as breaking into a place of business with the intent to commit a theft, crime of violence or arson. It has a maximum penalty of up to 15 years in prison or up to 20 years if the state can prove the defendant stole or attempted to steal a firearm. While the statute prohibits breaking and entering of the business, a defendant does not actually have to break something in the literal sense in order to be charged. Breaking can also mean crossing some sort of threshold like a fence (regardless of size) or an opened door. Simply walking on to an open area of a business would without crossing any type of boundary would likely only be sufficient to support charges for fourth-degree burglary. Burglary in the fourth degree is the only type of misdemeanor burglary in Maryland, and has a maximum penalty of 3 years in prison. First and third-degree burglaries are both reserved for the breaking and entering of dwellings, and are generally treated more harshly in court than the other varieties.
A Harford County man was recently arrested at a polling place in Jarrettsville for refusing to wear a mask while attempting to cast his ballot in the upcoming presidential election. The 52-year old from Fallston was not taken into custody right away, but rather was allegedly asked to leave or put on a mask several times before police were called. Even after deputies from the Harford County Sheriff’s Office arrived, an arrest was not performed immediately. Deputies spoke to the man for nearly 30 minutes, and reportedly arrested him as a last resort. He was taken to the detention center and then was released on his own recognizance after meeting with the commissioner. Officers charged the man with two offenses including trespass under criminal law 6.403 and failure to comply with a health emergency under section 14.3A.08 of the public safety code. According to reports there was another man who refused to wear a mask, but willingly left the polling site after police arrived.
There are a few interesting legal issues related to this incident, but let’s start of by saying it is a true sign of the times that the headline to this post is not the least bit shocking. Just think how you would have felt one year ago if you had read that a person was arrested for not wearing a mask at a polling place. Regardless, the legal issues we will discuss involve the two charges. The first issue is whether the man was charged with the appropriate trespass statute. Under Maryland law, trespassing on private property carries a maximum sentence of 90-days in jail. This charge is common in cases involving casino trespass related to the Maryland voluntary exclusion program, and other cases involving bars, stores and private homes where the individual has been told to leave or not to enter in the first place. This particular incident occurred at a volunteer fire department, so the appropriate statute may have been for refusal or failure to leave a public building or grounds under 6-409. Trespass on public or government property carries a higher 6-month maximum penalty, which means there is a right to trial by jury in the circuit court.
We know from previous posts about parties and gatherings that police will make arrests for violations of the Governor’s long-standing health emergency order. The Governor has a wide range of powers during emergencies, but typically when we think of a state of emergency we think of riots, hurricanes or widespread power outages. The health emergency provision is seldom used, but it does unequivocally grant certain powers to the Governor and the Court of Appeals that include requiring certain individuals to quarantine or isolate. The language of the statute also reads that “If necessary and reasonable to save lives or prevent exposure to a deadly agent, the Governor may order individuals to remain indoors or refrain from congregating.” The statute does not specifically address the ability of the Governor’s power to require masks, but does broadly allow for appropriate actions to be taken to protect the public. It should be noted that a violation of the public safety code related to so called normal states of emergency carries a maximum penalty of 6 months in jail and a $1,000 fine, while a violation for failing to comply with a health emergency order is 1 year in jail and a $5,000 fine.
Over the last several years the marijuana policy has greatly evolved in Maryland, and more changes are on the horizon. From the decriminalization of small amounts of pot to medical cannabis, and even the Baltimore City State’s Attorney’s Office ending prosecution for marijuana possession, the progress has been undeniable. On the other hand, marijuana continues to be the root of hundreds of criminal prosecutions each year in the state of Maryland, and the majority of these cases begin out on the roads and highways. There is no easier way for police to make contact with the general public than through traffic stops, and this contact can quickly lead to a criminal investigation based on the smell of marijuana. With all the changes going on it is important to take a minute to understand what police officers are legally allowed to do on the road, and what they will often do regardless of legality.
Through various rulings in 2019 and 2020 Maryland’s highest court has made it clear that police cannot search a driver or passenger of a vehicle based on the smell of marijuana. The odor of marijuana or the presence of a small amount of marijuana is not evidence of a crime, and police cannot make a lawful arrest without more incriminating evidence. Police also are not able to search a person based on the smell or presence of marijuana and then say they were concerned about the presence of a weapon to justify a search. A search of person requires probable cause to believe that the person is armed or in possession of evidence of a crime. In addition, police are not permitted to perform the lesser intrusion of a frisk or pat down for weapons unless they have reasonable suspicion that the person is armed. Reasonable suspicion is a lower level of suspicion than probable cause, but still requires specific facts to indicate the presence of a weapon.
While police now have a far more limited ability to perform frisks and searches of people, they still have the power to perform automobile searches. Since marijuana is still considered illegal contraband, the odor of marijuana or the presence of a small amount still gives police the authority to search a car under the automobile exception. Contraband refers to goods that are illegal to possess regardless of whether possession of the goods is a crime. When lawmakers made possession of less than 10 grams of marijuana a civil infraction, they essentially preserved a police officer’s right to search a car based on the smell of marijuana. Nine out of ten times when police decide to search a car, they are not doing it solely to find a small amount of pot, and this is why marijuana is such a common cause of roadside arrests. Searching a car requires time and multiple police units, as an officer cannot search a car and watch its occupants at the same time. No officer is going to call for backup if he or she believes that the search will only yield a baggie of pot. To the contrary, police are generally looking for other controlled substances, large amounts of marijuana combined with currency and other evidence of distribution such as scales and empty bags, and finally firearms. We see dozens of handgun cases each year that begin as simple probable cause searches based on the odor of marijuana, and until marijuana is legalized this law enforcement tactic will continue. Transporting marijuana of any quantity or smoking in the car essentially give police a free look into a vehicle after any type of lawful traffic stop. Whether it’s a broken taillight or failing to signal, police do not need more than a primary moving violation or equipment violation to make contact with a potential suspect.
A Baltimore City Police officer was recently arrested and charged with drunk driving after he was found sleeping on the street outside of a convenience store. According to the incident report the officer was found lying in a pool of his own vomit outside of his vehicle on Eastern Ave in Baltimore. To make matters worse the defendant, who was off-duty at the time, told responding officers that his personal firearm was missing from the scene. Police searched the vehicle and the area around the vehicle, but were unable to locate the missing handgun. The officer now faces charges for driving while impaired and driving under the influence of alcohol, and has a trial date set in the North Avenue District Court in February. It remains to be seen whether the officer will resolve his case at the District Court level, or request a jury trial that would transfer the case downtown to the Circuit Court for Baltimore City. DUI carries a maximum penalty of 1 year in jail, which means the defendant has an absolute right to request a jury trial under Maryland law. DWI carries a maximum penalty of 60 days incarceration, and thus is not an offense that affords a jury trial right.
Regardless of where the case is heard, the judge will not be pleased to find out that the officer had previously been charged with DUI back in 2018. According to an incident report the officer, who was again off-duty, was pulled over after police responded to a call regarding individuals brandishing firearms at a club. Police detected signs of impairment and the officer was administered a breathalyzer test at the station, which resulted in a reading of .10. While this is clearly enough evidence to prosecute for DUI per se under Maryland law, the case ended up being dismissed by prosecutors in court. The officer was also never identified as one of the individuals who allegedly brandished a gun, but two of his off-duty colleagues were identified and disciplined as a result of their involvement. The officer, who currently lives in Howard County, avoided any major disciplinary consequences back in 2018, but he may not be so lucky in the present case. If he enters a plea or is found guilty at trial the fact that he was so intoxicated that his handgun was lost or taken without his knowledge will certainly be a factor that the judge will consider at sentencing. It is likely that a sentencing judge would consider this behavior even more reckless than a typical DUI, as it resulted in another illegal firearm being circulated on the streets of Baltimore.
The 28-year old city police officer has been placed on paid leave during the course of an internal investigation that will not be made public. The results of the case will be public though, and it will be interesting to see how the state and the judge handle the case. The public will certainly be watching, and so will the Blog. We will post a follow-up article when the case is resolved, and comment on the outcome. Benjamin Herbst is a Maryland criminal defense lawyer who specializes in DUI defense and other traffic charges such as leaving the scene of an accident, fleeing and eluding police, driving on a suspended license, reckless driving, driving without a license and federal traffic citations received on Maryland parkways or on federal property. Benjamin also handles all criminal charges including wear, transport or carry of a handgun, and illegal possession of a firearm. He is available 7-days a week for a free consultation and is licensed in Florida for those who have criminal or traffic cases in Miami-Dade, Broward or Palm Beach County. Call Benjamin today at 410-207-2598 or 954-543-0305 to discuss your case and which defenses may be available to you.
Howard County is known for having one of the best school systems in the state and a relatively low crime rate, so it undoubtedly was surprising when federal agents showed up in force to execute a search warrant of a home in a quiet Ellicott City neighborhood. The agents were targeting a 31-year old suspect and looking for evidence of drug distribution, and they allegedly found a what they were looking for when the performed the search back in 2016. According to evidence presented at trial, law enforcement entered the residence as the defendant was in the kitchen with numerous bags of crack cocaine, powder cocaine, digital scales, measuring cups used in the production of crack and two loaded .45 caliber handguns. During the course of the search, law enforcement officers then found over 70 grams each of cocaine and crack, and close to $10,000 in cash. Agents also seized two semi-automatic rifles with large capacity magazines and 200 rounds of ammunition. The defendant was charged with possession with intent to distribute cocaine and possession of a firearm in furtherance of a drug trafficking crime among other felony charges. Rather than enter a plea of guilty, the defendant elected to roll the dice and go to trial, but it appears from the verdict that he may not have made the best decision.
After a four-day jury trial at the Baltimore City federal courthouse that was postponed due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the defendant was ultimately found guilty for possession with intent to distribute more than 28 grams of cocaine, possession of a firearm in furtherance of a drug trafficking crime and possession of a firearm by a convicted felon. The first two convictions carry 5-year mandatory prison sentences that will be imposed consecutively. Maryland state law and federal law both provide mandatory five-year sentences for possession of large amounts of cocaine, and both also have mandatory sentences for possession of a firearm in a drug trafficking crime. The defendant will likely be sentenced to more than 10 years in prison and since there is no parole in federal criminal cases he may not be released until at least 2026. Even if the case was charged in state court the defendant would not have been parole eligible based on the mandatory minimum sentences that must be imposed by the judge. According to a release from the U.S. Attorney’s Office, the Howard County and Prince George’s County Police Departments helped the FBI work up this case as part of the Project Safe Neighborhoods, which was developed to encourage collaboration between federal and state law enforcement agencies.
Under Maryland law there is no specific offense entitled drug trafficking like there is in Florida, but the term is used whenever a defendant is charged with possession or distribution of a large amount of cocaine, heroin, marijuana or other drug. Violations of these offenses trigger mandatory prison sentences, but the federal laws can be stricter than Maryland laws when it comes to amounts. Federal law provides a minimum mandatory penalty for possession of a much lower amount of cocaine base (28 grams) compared to Maryland law (448 grams). In contrast, Maryland law has a lower threshold for heroin (28 grams) than federal law (100 grams). Maryland state law and federal law both provide the same mandatory penalty for firearm possession during a drug crime, but many times this offense is wrongly charged by state law enforcement. The law requires the State to prove a nexus between the drugs and the guns, so if a gun is locked away in a person’s basement it may not be in any way related to the drugs. A criminal defense lawyer will be able to look at the case in detail to determine what defenses may be available in a drug trafficking case.
Last week we posted on the Special Enforcement Zone that was established in anticipation of the H2Oi pop-up car rally, and after a wild weekend that made national news headlines the Ocean City Police have reported over 100 arrests. According to a press release on Sunday, the last day of the rally, there were only minor issues reporting during the days but nighttime was an entirely different story. Late Saturday night the Ocean City Police requested backup from numerous law enforcement agencies throughout Maryland’s Easter Shore after numerous individuals allegedly became unruly and destructive. The Maryland State Police as well as the MTA Police, Natural Resources Police and even the state’s Incident Management Team responded to Ocean City to assist. In addition to over 100 arrests, police also towed more than 350 vehicles and wrote over 1,000 traffic and criminal citations. The Governor lauded the swift actions of law enforcement while condemning the alleged wanton disrespect for law enforcement displayed by many of the visitors.
In addition to the hundred plus arrests, there were also several injuries to civilians and police officers. On Saturday night a Maryland State Police trooper was knocked unconscious while attempting to arrest a fleeing suspect. According to a MSP press release the trooper fell to the ground upon “reaching the suspect”, which likely meant the trooper tackled the suspect after running at a high rate of speed. The trooper sustained a laceration to his head and was treated at PRMC in Salisbury before being released the next morning. The suspect was eventually taken into custody and charged with disorderly conduct, resisting arrest, escape second degree and reckless endangerment. Despite all charges being misdemeanors and no weapon being involved, the defendant was initially held without bail. According to Vinelink he has been released on pre-trial supervision, and now must return to Maryland from Virginia for his trial date in January at the Snow Hill district court.
Most defendants who are arrested in Ocean City for misdemeanors or traffic offenses will be scheduled for trial at the Ocean City district court on 65th Street and Coastal Highway, but the influx of arrests means that the Snow Hill district court will have to shoulder some of the case load for a few months. Defendants who are facing offenses that carry more than 90 days in jail have the option to request a jury trial at the circuit court, but this is not always a wise decision in Worcester County. The defendant in this particular case faces a 60-day maximum sentence for the disorderly conduct charge, but 3 years in prison for the escape and resisting arrest charges. Second degree escape is a common charge in Maryland due to its broad definition; a defendant who is on home detention can be charged with second-degree escape for violating the terms of the monitoring agreement, as can a person who fails to show up to a jail facility to serve a sentence. In this particular case the defendant was charged with escape for departing from custody without the authorization of the arresting officer, which is similar to resisting or interfering with arrest. The state will likely have to drop at least one of these charges at or before trial. Reckless endangerment, which is defined under Maryland law as engaging in conduct that creates a substantial risk of death or serious physical injury to another or discharging a firearm from a vehicle, is punishable by up to 5 years in prison. At this point there does not seem to be adequate evidence for the state to prove reckless endangerment, and it is unnerving that he was charged in the first place for this serious misdemeanor. Running from the police after being placed under arrest may be illegal but it is a major stretch to say that running creates a substantial risk of serious bodily injury for the officer who is giving chase. If the chase took place in a vehicle it would be a different story, but fleeing on foot should never be charged as reckless endangerment.
Police officers from all over the state are being deployed to Ocean City this weekend to keep the peace at one of the largest pop-up car rallys in the region. Each year at the end of September car owners and enthusiasts flock to Ocean City to socialize, drive and watch hundreds of customized rally cars cruise down Coastal Highway. Unfortunately, the cruising often escalates into more aggressive driving activity and the town government and law enforcement have had enough. The rally, also called the H2Oi, is an unofficial event that is not sanctioned by the city or the county, but nonetheless the government is forced to deal with the “chaos” that it brings. In 2019 the event was too much for the Ocean City government to stomach, and the mayor swore the “chaos” would never happen again. Rather than sit back and scramble to enforce the state and local laws as if it were a normal party weekend, the government made a conscious effort to come out swinging for the 2020 event that runs until this Sunday night.
The town is planning to deploy hundreds of extra police officers from various jurisdictions to supplement the OCPD including the Worcester County Sheriff’s Office, the Maryland State Police, the Maryland Natural Resources Police and the Wicomico and Queen Anne’s County Sheriff’s Offices. These officers will now be armed with new criminal enforcement tools in the form of legislation that passed the General Assembly this year. The legislation allows local governments to establish Special Event Zones, which include events that are sanctioned by the government or unsanctioned but expected to attract more than 1,000 people. The H2Oi falls under the latter category, as it is not officially sanctioned by Ocean City or Worcester County. Once the government has defined a Special Event Zone, it can give law enforcement the power to reduce speed limits, increase fines and even arrest individuals for certain traffic offenses that are normally classified as minor and only subject to fines and points. Speeding in a Special Event Zone becomes punishable by a fine of up to $1,000 and participating in Exhibition Driving becomes punishable by up to 60 days in jail and/or a $1,000 fine. This week the hundreds of extra police officers will now have the authority to arrest a person for Exhibition Driving.
Exhibition Driving is defined under the new Maryland law as excessive or abrupt deceleration or acceleration, skidding, squealing, burning or smoking of the tires of a motor vehicle, swerving or swaying of a motor vehicle from side to side while skidding, producing an unreasonably loud, raucous or disturbing noise from a motor vehicle’s engine, grinding the gears of backfiring the engine of a motor vehicle, popping the wheels of a car off the ground and transporting a passenger on the roof or hood of a car. Anyone who violates these provisions can be arrested and taken before a District Court Commissioner, and then face a mandatory court appearance down the road. These laws have only been approved for Worcester County, as it certainly appears the legislature is directly targeting the H2Oi without explicitly saying so.
Police have arrested and charged a 27-year old Prince George’s County man for allegedly hitting a woman with his car. The incident occurred in a fast food restaurant parking lot in Howard County, and most of the it was caught on the restaurant’s security cameras. The footage appears to show a woman exiting a white Audi SUV shortly before the SUV drives off. The woman walks toward a pickup truck in the parking lot, which then blocks the camera’s view of her. Less than a minute later the SUV returns to the parking lot and accelerates toward the parked pickup truck where the woman was last seen. The SUV slams into the side of the white pickup truck and then the woman again appears on camera lying down in front of the pickup truck. At first the driver of the pickup truck hastily leaves his car to avoid being injured himself, but then returns to render aid to the woman before police and EMS are called. The white SUV flees the scene at a high rate of speed shortly after striking the pickup truck.
An arrest warrant was issued for the suspect 3 days after the incident, and he was taken into custody in Washington D.C. 4 days after the arrest warrant became active. The next day he was brought before a district court judge for a bail review, but the hearing was postponed and he was held without bond until 3 days later when the he had an attorney present to argue for release. The judge was not swayed and the defendant remains in custody on charges including attempted first-degree murder, assault in the first and second degree, kidnapping and reckless endangerment. A preliminary hearing is set for the case next week, but it will likely be transferred to the Circuit Court for Howard County prior to the preliminary by way of indictment or the filing of a criminal information.
Attempted first-degree murder is the most serious offense that the defendant will face, and it is no surprise the judge decided to hold him without bail. Under Maryland law first-degree attempted murder carries a potential sentence of life in prison, while first-degree assault carries a 25-year maximum penalty and kidnapping a 20-year maximum penalty. Reckless endangerment, which is defined as engaging in conduct that creates a substantial risk of death or serious injury to another, is a misdemeanor with a 5-year maximum penalty. While it may seem excessive to charge the defendant with attempted first-degree murder under these facts unless the victim suffered life threatening injuries, the reality is that the state is not required to prove any type of injury in a Maryland attempted murder case. All that is required is for the state to prove that the defendant intended to kill the victim, had the ability to kill the victim and took a substantial step toward killing the victim. Most attempted murder cases involve shootings and stabbings, as these acts are easy for the state to establish ability to kill and taking a substantial step toward killing, provided they can properly identify the defendant and self-defense is not an issue. Automobile attempted murder cases are less common, as it may be difficult for the state to prove the defendant actually intended to kill. While it’s to argue that a person driving an SUV at a pedestrian did not have the ability to kill, and hitting someone is certainly a substantial step, intent to kill rather than injure is not as clear. In most Maryland cases where a driver intentionally hits a person with their car the state ends up focusing on first-degree assault, where they must only prove the defendant intentionally caused or attempted to cause serious bodily injury to another.