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Articles Posted in Federal Crimes

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Gun-evidence-box-300x225This past week a 30-year-old Cecil County man was sentenced to more than four years in federal prison for narcotics conspiracy and possession of a firearm by a convicted felon.  The case was originally prosecuted in the district and dircuit courts for Cecil County located in Elkton, but the feds decided to prosecute as part of their Project Safe Neighborhoods (PSN) initiative, which was developed by the Justice Department in an effort to curb violent crime.  While we have posted numerous articles about federal gun and drug prosecutions in the Baltimore and D.C. Metro areas, this case is another reminder that the feds will pick up felony firearm cases in all Maryland jurisdictions.

According to facts presented in the plea agreement, the defendant’s vehicle was pulled over for speeding and failing to stop at a stop sign.  Upon initiating a traffic stop the Cecil County Sheriff’s deputy observed the car shake and determined that the driver and passenger had switched seats.  This obviously peaked the deputy’s suspicions, though it turned out there was much more in store for the deputy to deal with.  Upon asking the two men for their identification, the defendant grabbed the gear shift and told the driver to go.  The deputy was able to turn the vehicle off before it could move, but then the defendant took off on foot in an attempt to flee the scene.  While attempting to escape the defendant was observed throwing an object that appeared to be a firearm.  The defendant was eventually apprehended by police and found to be in possession of $1,802 in cash.  Police also recovered a loaded firearm in the area where the defendant fled and a small quantity of marijuana in the vehicle.  Finally, deputies recovered a small amount of crack cocaine in the back of the patrol car after the defendant was removed for a medical check.  The traffic stop, including the defendant fleeing with what appeared to be a firearm in his hand, was all captured on the patrol car’s dashboard camera.

The defendant was originally charged with 12 state criminal counts including illegal possession of a firearm, loaded handgun in vehicle, handgun on person, obstructing and hindering, disturbing the peace, resisting arrest and CDS possession-not marijuana.  He was held without bond while the state case was pending most likely due to the firearm charge and the fact that he attempted to flee from police.  Judges often make the conclusion that a defendant is a flight risk and will be unlikely to appear as directed for court if he or she is accused of attempting to flee from police during the original crime.  Logically the two are quite different, but this argument often falls short in moving the needle toward release.  The case was transferred to circuit court but then dismissed after the feds picked it up a couple months later.  Considering the defendant faced a 5-year mandatory prison sentence without parole on the state level, he likely did not receive a much harsher sentence in federal court.  A defendant who is sentenced on a 5-year mandatory offense in Maryland state court for a crime such as felon/disqualified person in possession of a firearm may still be eligible to obtain credits for good behavior etc.  The defendant’s 52-month prison sentence is pretty close to what he would have served had he been convicted in state court.

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bullet-408636_640-300x200The traffic stop has long since been a powerful investigative tool for law enforcement.  Performing a traffic stop is perhaps the most common method for police officers to make contact with citizens.  While the large majority of traffic stops remain just about the alleged traffic infraction, police are trained to look for signs of criminal activity immediately upon pulling over a vehicle.  Sometimes suspects give police reason to escalate the situation by their words or actions, and other times the presence of criminal activity is based on something an officer sees or smells.  Of all the traffic stops that an officer conducts, there is one scenario where the driver almost always ends up in handcuffs, and it occurs when the driver is asleep behind the wheel.

Obviously, a sleeping driver’s vehicle is rarely moving when police make contact, but Maryland case law has made it clear that an officer who approaches a parked vehicle is still making a traffic stop for legal purposes.   A driver of a parked vehicle may have a legal argument if he or she is awake and not trespassing or committing some other obvious offense.  In the case of the sleeping driver however, there will never be an issue about whether the officer has a legal basis to make the stop.  Outside of being on private property, sleeping while in control of a motor vehicle is not only a sign that criminal activity may be afoot, but also presents a safety hazard that gives police the authority to investigate for welfare purposes.  Most drivers who are asleep behind the wheel will be asked to step out of the vehicle and investigated for signs of drug or alcohol intoxication.  A fair amount of DUI cases begin when an officer makes contact with a sleeping driver.  In some cases though the stop becomes much more than a DUI investigation.

Back in pre-Covid era of March of 2019 (which seems like a lifetime ago) Baltimore police encountered a man asleep behind the wheel in a Reisterstown Road parking lot.  Officers immediately observed signs of intoxication, including the usual slurred speech, and requested the man step out of the vehicle.  Apparently in the man’s intoxicated state he forgot that he had a firearm protruding from his waistband, and he was immediately arrested.  Police seized the the loaded handgun and subsequently performed a ballistics analysis to see if the firearm had been involved in any prior criminal conduct.  As it turns out, the same firearm was discharged in public back in 2017 in a crime that was never solved.  While nobody was injured, the incident was still part of an open investigation, and as a result Baltimore County police detectives ended up questioning the defendant about his knowledge of the Owings Mills shooting.  Unfortunately for the defendant, he did not assert his right to counsel and proceeded to admit that he was the person who discharged the firearm in public, after taking it during a drug transaction.  In exchange for his honesty the police proceed to charge the defendant with felony firearm possession, CDS possession of firearms and discharging a firearm in public.

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jaguar-1366978_960_720-300x169Last week in Baltimore City a 49-year-old man from Columbia, Maryland was sentenced to 7 years in federal prison for operating an international stolen car scheme.  Upon being released from prison the Howard County resident will be placed on three years of supervised release, as there is no parole in the federal correctional system.  According to the facts presented by the government, and pursuant to his plea agreement, the defendant admitted to participating in the theft and exportation of at least 17 automobiles.  The cars were either stolen from private owners or from rental agencies, and then shipped overseas after a sale was negotiated.  The defendant attempted to avoid detection from customs officials by creating fraudulent paperwork, which misrepresented the contents of shipping containers.  Most of the cars were shipped to Africa and likely left from the Port of Baltimore or transported to other ports by truck, though the government’s press release did not reveal the specifics.

Law enforcement caught on to the scheme pretty early in the process, and were conducting surveillance on the defendant as early as January of 2019.  During this first encounter, Howard County Police and Homeland Security approached the defendant and questioned him about the stolen vehicles, but the defendant denied any involvement and was not taken into custody immediately.  In fact, the defendant was not arrested until March of 2020, giving law enforcement ample time to build a strong case.  Search warrants were executed on the defendant’s cell phones that revealed pictures of the stolen vehicles as well as communications to and from shipping companies, and law enforcement also recovered numerous emails from the defendant’s fictitious identity that he used to facilitate the illegal transactions.  The defendant was ultimately arrested inside a rental vehicle that was rented through fraudulent means, and was overdue.  After being questioned by law enforcement the defendant eventually admitted to knowing that the vehicles he shipped were stolen, and that he misrepresented the contents of containers to the shipping companies he contracted.

The defendant entered a guilty plea to two felony counts of conspiracy to commit interstate foreign transport of motor vehicles and knowingly transporting stolen vehicles.  Transporting stolen vehicles under 18 U.S. Code § 2312 is a felony punishable by up to 10 years in prison.  Unlike a charge for transportation of stolen goods, securities or moneys under 18 U.S. Code § 2314, the government does not need to establish a minimum value of the vehicle(s) in order to prove its case.  A felony charge for interstate or international transportation of stolen goods requires a minimum value of $5k.  Regardless of whether value is an essential element of the offense, value of the scheme has a dramatic effect on the federal sentencing guidelines score, and the eventual sentence.  The estimated value of the cars in this particular scheme was over $850k, which means his sentencing guidelines increased by at least 14 levels based on the value of the scam alone.  There were likely other aggravating factors that the judge took into account, as a 7-year term of incarceration is a considerable sentence for a theft scheme with a total value of less than $1 million.  As we explain on the firm’s Maryland website, the value of any federal theft is a key factor in determining the likely outcome of a case, and an experienced federal criminal defense lawyer can explain the impact of the sentencing guidelines in more detail.

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Gun-evidence-box-300x225Last week two Maryland men in their late 20s appeared in federal court on gun charges, and both will end up serving several years in prison.  The first case was heard last Thursday in the Greenbelt federal courthouse, where a 29-year-old man from Suitland pled guilty to two counts of felon in possession of a firearm.  The Prince George’s County man had been convicted of attempted distribution of cocaine in Washington D.C. back in 2014, which made him permanently ineligible to possess a firearm in all U.S. jurisdictions.  Unfortunately for the defendant, law enforcement subsequently found him in possession of a firearm on at least two recent occasions.  In June of 2020 Prince George’s County Police conducted a search of the defendant’s home pursuant to a warrant, and recovered a .40 caliber handgun, ammunition and CDS including buprenorphine and naloxone.  These prescription drugs are used to treat heroin and other opioid addictions, but can be used as illicit substances.  After being advised of his Miranda rights the defendant admitted that the firearm was in his possession.

The defendant was charged with possession with intent to distribute, and offenses related to false prescriptions.  He was also charged with possession of a firearm by a convicted felon, illegal possession of a regulated firearm and possession not marijuana. The possession with intent (PWID) charge was of the variety that comes with a 5-year maximum penalty rather than the 20-year penalty that narcotics cases carry.  Despite the severity of the charges, the defendant was released on bond one day after his arrest at a district court bail review.  The defendant’s lack of prior violent criminal history likely played a role in his release, as did his ties to Prince George’s County.  However, less than 4 months after his release he was arrested again on gun charges.  This time the arrest took place in Washington D.C., and was the result of a traffic stop that turned into a foot chase.  After the defendant was pulled over for running a stop sign, police discovered that he had an active Maryland circuit court arrest warrant stemming from the PG County gun and drug case.  The U.S. Attorney’s press release does not specify why the defendant had the warrant, but it was likely for violating a condition of his pre-trial release or for missing court.  After the defendant was confronted about the warrant, he took off on foot in attempt to fell from police.  Officers then caught the defendant and located a loaded .45 caliber handgun in his jacket pocket.  The feds stepped in not long after his arrest on the D.C. case, and charged both cases together in the Greenbelt federal court.  The PG circuit court case was later dismissed along with the D.C. case, and now the defendant faces up to 10-years in prison on each count when he is sentenced in November of this year.

The second case occurred just one day later in the Baltimore City federal courthouse, where a 28-year-old Baltimore man was sentenced to 57 months in federal prison, followed by 3 years of supervised release for one count of felon in possession of a firearm.  This defendant was originally arrested on state charges after being arrested at the end of 2019.  According to the plea, Baltimore Police officers observed the defendant conduct a drug transaction and then gave chase.  The defendant fled on his bicycle and eventually on foot, but officers caught up with him and found a loaded 9 mm handgun as well as cocaine and fentanyl packaged for sale.  He was charged with possession of a firearm in a drug trafficking crime, illegal possession of a firearm, PWID narcotics and other offenses, though the state case was dismissed after the feds decided to prosecute.  The defendant was prohibited from possessing guns due to felony convictions from 2015 that involved narcotics distribution.

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money-943782_960_720-300x225This past week in the Baltimore federal courthouse a 26-year-old defendant pleaded guilty for his involvement in three separate robberies in the Baltimore metro area.  The first robbery took place in October of 2019 at a Baltimore City pharmacy.  In this particular incident the government presented evidence that the defendant and his co-conspirator entered the pharmacy just as it opened in the morning, and while donning masks, gloves and glasses brandished a black revolver and demanded cash from the safe.  The clerk gave the men over $1,600 and then was bound with zip ties while the pair fled in the victim’s vehicle.

One month later the two defendants committed a second robbery in Anne Arundel County.  This robbery took place at a retail store, where the defendants entered right at closing time.  Once again, the pair were clad in masks and gloves and carrying handguns.  After taking over $3,000 from the store and striking a victim in the head, the defendants fled the scene in the victim’s vehicle.  The final robbery was committed in December of 2019 in Baltimore County restaurant in Parkville.  The defendants entered the restaurant at 7 a.m. just as the shift manager and another coworker were opening for the day, and once again the defendants brandished a firearm and demanded money from the restaurant safe.  After stealing close to $4,000 from the safe and binding the victims with zip ties the defendants fled in one of the victim’s vehicles.

One day after the third and final robbery Baltimore County Police detectives located the stolen vehicle and surreptitiously outfitted it with a GPS tracker.  Two days later police followed the vehicle as it moved and eventually attempted to effectuate a traffic stop.  The defendant abandoned the vehicle and then fled on foot, but was then apprehended a short time later on Harford Road.  After being arrested the defendant agreed to speak to police, and claimed he found the stolen vehicle that day and was merely taking it for a joy ride.  Law enforcement officers obviously were not convinced and ended up charging him with robbery, assault in the first degree, motor vehicle taking and felony theft.  The case was forwarded to the Circuit Court for Baltimore County with additional charges for use of a firearm in a crime of violence and CDS drug charges.  In November of 2020 the case was nolle prossed after the feds decided to pick it up.  While the U.S. Attorney’s press release does not mention the specifics, the feds were likely alerted after local law enforcement discovered the defendant’s involvement in the two other robberies.  A search warrant was executed on the defendant’s phone, and law enforcement found pictures of large amounts of cash on the same day as the first robbery.  Cell phone tracking data also showed the defendant was in the area of the first two robberies on the dates in question.

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coke4-300x250This week two Baltimore men received federal prison sentences for narcotics distribution, further serving as reminders that the feds are not shy about prosecuting drug cases in Baltimore City.  Neither case seemed especially complex, and both defendants appeared to keep their illegal operations local, but nonetheless the cases ended up in federal court.  Unlike many crimes, drug offenses do not need to be committed on federal property or across state lines in order to be prosecuted in federal court.  The United States Code has strict controlled substance laws, and the feds can choose to prosecute anyone involved with suspected drug dealing.  Normally in Maryland, street level cases are prosecuted in state court by the local State’s Attorney’s Office, but it’s quite a different story in Baltimore City.

The U.S. Attorney’s Office prosecutes a large number of drug and gun cases that would normally be filed in state court, and the two from this week are a classic example.  On July 13, a 41-year-old man from Baltimore was sentenced to 5 years in federal prison for conspiracy to distribute and possess with intent to distribute crack cocaine.  This particular defendant was ultimately jammed up for selling cocaine to multiple confidential informants in a particular area of East Baltimore.  The defendant’s DTO or drug trafficking organization was not particularly large but nonetheless caught the attention of the ATF, and ultimately wound up in federal court.  As part of the plea the defendant admitted to conspiracy to distribute more than 28 grams of cocaine, and also admitted to possessing firearms.

Just one day after the sentence was handed down for the 41-year-old defendant, another Baltimore man learned he would be spending the next 4 years in federal prison for conspiracy to distribute heroin, fentanyl and cocaine.  This particular defendant was being investigated by a joint task force led by the DEA, who joined with Baltimore City Police in gathering evidence to support the defendant’s involvement with a street level drug trafficking organization.  Law enforcement officers were ultimately able to secure a search warrant for the defendant’s residence, and recovered 147 grams of a heroin fentanyl mixture, cutting agents and a press containing cocaine.  According to the U.S. Attorney’s Office, based on the evidence obtained it was reasonable to conclude that the defendant and his co-conspirators distributed more than to distribute more than 3.5 kilograms of cocaine, as well as heroin and fentanyl.  The 5-year sentence may seem low compared to state sentences for narcotics distribution, but keep in mind that there is no parole in the federal justice system.  Defendants typically serve more than 75 percent of their actual sentences compared to state defendants who are eligible for parole on non-violent offenses after serving 25 percent of their time.  There were a total of 25 defendants indicted in this particular investigation, and 22 have pleaded guilty or been found guilty at trial.  In March of this year the defendant’s alleged source of supply was sentenced to 10 years in prison for his role in the conspiracy.

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fire-1030751_1280-300x199Earlier this week a 19-year-old from the state of Mississippi pled guilty to a federal arson charge stemming from a fire at a home located within Fort Meade.  According to facts presented at the plea the young man poured lighter fluid in various areas of his father and stepmother’s home, including the front door, welcome mat, stairs and the door to his parent’s bedroom.  The defendant apparently lit the fire inside the home and then suffered a leg injury jumping off the rear porch.  Luckily the fire was extinguished without any other injures, and minimal property damage, but the situation obviously could have gone much worse.  After being cleared by paramedics, the defendant was interviewed by the Fort Meade Military Police Department.  He subsequently admitted to spreading accelerant and lighting the fire.  Multiple fire departments and law enforcement agencies were involved in this incident including the FBI, ATF, Howard County State Fire Marshal’s Office and the Anne Arundel County Fire Department.  The case is being prosecuted by the Baltimore office of the United States Attorney, as the arson occurred on federal property.

The defendant is this particular case was found guilty of an extremely serious crime, and faces up to life in prison for his actions.  Arson within a special maritime and territorial jurisdiction under 18 U.S. Code §81 is a felony typically punishable by up to 25 years, but if the fire was started in a dwelling or if any person’s life was placed in jeopardy the maximum penalty becomes life in jail.  In this case the government was able to establish both that the fire was started in a dwelling, and that the victims were placed in jeopardy.  The defendant will certainly not be sentenced to life in prison, and likely much less than 25 years when he is sentenced in few months.  There are probably some underlying issues that must be explored in this type of case, and hopefully the government will take that into consideration when making a sentencing recommendation.

Arson by itself is not the type of crime that is typically prosecuted in federal court, unless the act occurs within a special maritime and territorial jurisdiction.  This includes all United States military bases and federal installations such as Fort Meade, Joint Base Andrews and Aberdeen Proving Ground.  Other charges such as destruction of property government property are also typically prosecuted along with arson pursuant to the malicious mischief section of the U.S. Code.  Had there been property damage the defendant would likely have been charged with destruction of federal property as well.  This offense is a felony punishable by up to 10 years as long as the value of the damage exceeds $1,000.  If the damage is less than $1,000 the offense would be considered a petty offense, and punishable by up to 1 year in jail.

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pistol-1350484_1280-300x200A 20-year-old Washington D.C. man was recently sentenced to five years in federal prison after he pled guilty to theft of firearms from a federal firearms licensee’s facility.  This offense is a felony punishable by up to 10 years in prison.  The incident occurred back in August of 2019 at a Baltimore County gun store in the Essex area.  According to the plea agreement the defendant and a co-conspirator drove up to the gun store in a stolen vehicle, and repeatedly attempted to ram the front door of the shop with the stolen car.  The defendant then broke one of the store’s windows, entered and then proceeded to throw stolen firearms to the co-conspirator waiting outside.  The two fled the scene and were not apprehended immediately.  Shortly after the burglary the defendant posted on social media about the heist, and was not shy about showing off the stolen guns, gloves and mask he wore.  Law enforcement officers were able to match the social medial video with the store surveillance video, and were aided by distinctive tattoos on the defendant’s forearm.  The social medial videos also showed strings tied around the triggers of the weapons, which the store had used for identification.

As if the police needed more evidence of the defendant’s guilt, it turns out that he was also on GPS monitoring for a Prince George’s County case when he carried out the burglary.  The defendant was charged with armed robbery in 2018 and eventually pled guilty to conspiracy to commit robbery ( a misdemeanor common law offense in Maryland).  He was likely being supervised by parole and probation at the time, as he just pled guilty in May of 2019.  There is currently an active warrant out of the Prince George’s County Circuit Court for a violation of probation, though it is unclear how many years the defendant is backing up.

This case is another example of the feds picking up what would normally be a state case.  Much like bank robbery cases, the feds will typically get involved when gun shops are burglarized, as all arms dealers must be licensed by the federal government and the ATF in particular.  In this case, the defendant was also charged with second-degree burglary, felony theft and malicious destruction of property in the Baltimore County District Court.  An arrest warrant was issued back in 2019 and it appears the warrant remains unserved.  If Baltimore County chooses to prosecute the defendant will be transported to Towson upon completion of his federal sentence.  This of course is assuming that he is not taken to Prince George’s County first.  It will be interesting to see if Baltimore County chooses to prosecute a defendant that has been sentenced for the same act in federal court, and then punished for violating his probation due to that act in another county.  The Blog will follow and may post an article in the future.  In the meantime, stay tuned for any new posts regarding gun and drug charges that are filed in federal court.

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jaguar-1366978_960_720-300x169Maryland’s top federal prosecutor recently announced the formation of a regional law enforcement task force specifically aimed at arresting and prosecuting carjacking suspects.  The formation of this task force comes at a time when carjacking cases have spiked dramatically in Montgomery County, Prince George’s County and Washington D.C.  According to the U.S. Attorney’s Office the number of carjackings in the region more than doubled from 2019 to 2020, and 2021 is on pace to meet or exceed those numbers.  Montgomery County recorded 17 carjackings in December of 2020 alone, and D.C. has recorded 129 cases since the start of 2021.  Prince George’s County has also seen a spike in carjackings over the last few years, and has seen juveniles as young as 13 participate in the offenses.  Baltimore City was not mentioned in the press release and may not be part of this particular task force, though the feds have already been highly involved with the investigation and prosecution of gun crimes in the city.  Carjackings are actually down in Baltimore, though the rate of violent crime is far from satisfactory.

The stated goal of the task force is to ensure prosecution of suspects who engage in carjacking and robbery in multiple jurisdictions.  In a press release the Maryland U.S. Attorney’s Office described challenges to holding multijurisdictional offenders fully accountable for their actions.  It is unclear exactly what type of challenges the office is referring to, but it could relate to establishing the requisite proof that a firearm was used in the crime.  Carjacking and robbery suspects who are charged days or weeks after the incident are rarely arrested with a firearm in their possession, which leaves law enforcement and prosecutors with the challenge of placing a gun in the hands of the suspect at the time of the crime.  While armed robbery and carjacking are serious offenses, they often do not trigger the same minimum mandatory prison sentences as firearm crimes.  In Maryland the use of a firearm in a crime of violence such as robbery or carjacking brings a minimum 5-year sentence without parole and a maximum 20-years that can run consecutive to any other sentence imposed.  A defendant indicted under federal law may face a minimum 7-year sentence and a maximum life sentence for using, carrying and brandishing a firearm in a crime.

While the idea of state and federal multi-jurisdictional carjacking suppression team sounds like a novel idea, in practice the most important component likely comes down to information sharing and simple communication.  Unlike drug conspiracies that require organization and multiple actors working together along the supply and distribution chain, robbery and carjacking are generally unorganized and unsophisticated crimes.  They are often carried out by juveniles or young adults with no real criminal plan.  This is not to say the crimes are not serious, but rather to make the point that the incidents in different jurisdictions are rarely connected in any manner.  Information sharing may not help bring down a ring of carjackers, but it could help with the prosecution of suspects for more serious offenses than what they normally would face.  This could mean more federal prosecutions for robbery and carjacking defendants, with stiffer penalties and no parole.  Three defendants have already been indicted for carjacking in federal court, with one facing trial in Greenbelt and the other two in D.C.

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fire-1030751_1280-300x199It has been almost four years since a popular neighborhood bar in Pasadena burned down and was permanently shuttered, and now an end to the criminal case that followed is in sight.  A 36-year-old man from the same Anne Arundel County neighborhood as the bar recently pled guilty to a federal arson charge after being indicted back in September of 2019.  He now faces a minimum of 5 years in prison and a maximum of 20 years for his actions, and will learn his fate in July when the case is set for sentencing at the Baltimore federal courthouse.

Law enforcement officers likely made the initial determination that the fire was incendiary or set deliberately while the wood building was still smoking, though the bizarre details surrounding the fire unfolded in the weeks that followed.  Investigators from the ATF and the Anne Arundel County Fire and Explosives Investigation Unit confirmed their suspicions about an intentional fire by locating charred remains of homemade explosive devices and traces of gasoline, which is a common accelerant in arson cases.  Law enforcement officers were also able to view surveillance footage that captured several flashes of light preceding areas of the building catching fire that were likely the incendiary devices making contact with the building.  A police K9 unit was also able to locate the presence of gasoline on the other side of a fence that surrounded the bar, which was determined to be the area where the makeshift explosive devices or Molotov cocktails were ignited and thrown.  Finally, law enforcement recovered a glove that contained both traces of an accelerant and the defendant’s DNA.

The case against the defendant quickly became open and shut, but the motivation for his actions is what made this case bizarre.  According to the plea agreement and Maryland public case search records, the defendant was charged with a domestic second-degree assault and a petty theft for an incident that occurred outside of the bar about a week before the fire.  This assault was captured on the bar’s surveillance cameras, which the defendant attempted to destroy by setting fire to the whole building.  The irony in this situation is twofold, as a police officer actually witnessed the assault, thus making the surveillance cameras a bonus rather than an essential part of the assault case.  In addition, the surveillance system not only survived the fire, but recorded the defendant’s actions on the night of the fire.  The defendant ended up pleading guilty to the assault in the Circuit Court for Anne Arundel County in Annapolis, and was given a 3-year suspended sentence.

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