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technology-2500010__480-300x200Memorial Day weekend marks the unofficial start to the summer season in Maryland’s only beach town, but these days tourists from the region begin traveling to Ocean City to attend events and enjoy the night life as soon as the weather turns warm.  With graduations completed and school about to let out, it’s safe to say that summer is now in full swing down at the ocean.  This being a criminal law Blog we’re not here to report on the calendar of events in OCMD, but rather the host of new arrests and police activity that comes with the dramatic uptick in visitors.  This week one notable arrest took place after a New York man was pulled over for multiple traffic infractions including aggressive driving, and traveling roughly twice the 35 miles per hour speed limit on the Philadelphia Ave. section of coastal highway.  This area is one of the busiest and most heavily trafficked areas of Ocean City, so needless to say officers rushed to pull the vehicle over as soon as possible.  It seems that the actual traffic stop was effectuated without much drama, but the defendant’s alleged actions that followed were anything but calm and collected.

According to an Ocean City Police Department press release, officers detected an odor of an alcoholic beverage upon approaching the defendant, and shortly thereafter determined that he was driving on a suspended out-of-state driver’s license.  The defendant was then requested to complete standardized field sobriety exercises, and was arrested after becoming uncooperative during the tests.  He was initially arrested for DUI, fleeing and eluding and disorderly conduct, but it turns out these charges only represented a fraction of what was yet to come.  While the defendant was seated in the backseat of the patrol vehicle, he attempted to make a phone call from his smartwatch.  Making unauthorized phone calls while in custody is a huge no-no with police and correctional officers, but the defendant was not happy about giving up his watch to the police.  He allegedly became aggressive and kicked the arresting officer in the face chest and arms, and then kicked another officer who came over to offer assistance.  Ocean City EMS arrived on scene to treat the defendant and the officer, and the defendant was taken to Atlantic General Hospital in Berlin for treatment.  After receiving treatment for what the police deemed were minor injuries, he was taken to the police station and booked for a total of 5 criminal charges including two counts of assault on a law enforcement officer, disorderly conduct and obstructing and hindering.  He also received 16 traffic citations for charges including DUI and driving under the influence of drugs.  The defendant faces hefty fines and potential points for aggressive driving, reckless driving and negligent driving, and according to the charges the defendant’s license was already suspended in the state of Nevada.

The defendant was denied bail by the District Court Commissioner, but granted release on a $25,000 bail the following day when he went before a judge.  He posted bail and now will return to court in July for his trial date.  The Blog will continue to follow this case as it progresses through the court system, and we anticipate whichever judge hears this case will not be pleased with the defendant’s alleged conduct.  Aggressive driving combined with driving under the influence is a dangerous combination, especially in a crowded area such as lower Ocean City. The driving behavior combined with the alleged assault on police officers made a bad situation even worse, though the defendant may be able to challenge many of the charges in court.  He certainly is going to require a strong defense to avoid jail time and permanent convictions on his record.

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police-378255_960_720-300x212The U.S. Attorney’s Office for the District of Maryland recently announced that a 37-year-old man from Waldorf has been indicted on federal charges of false impersonation of an officer and employee of the United States and possession of a firearm by a convicted felon.  Federal prosecutors also announced the man’s co-conspirator, a 40-year-old woman from Baltimore, was charged with impersonating and officer and conspiracy to impersonate a federal officer.  The male defendant was held without bail, while the female was released on pre-trial supervision.  According to court documents and statements presented at the initial appearance, the charges stemmed from an incident that occurred back in March at a Prince George’s County restaurant.  The male defendant was working as a security guard for the restaurant with his pet dog when he allegedly attempted to detain two individuals who disputed a bill.  At some point PG County police officers became involved and questioned the defendant regarding the firearm that was on his person.  The defendant justified his possession of said firearm by stating that he was a Deputy United States Marshal, though the officers were not so easily convinced, and arrested him for illegal possession of a regulated firearm and wear, carry or transport of a handgun.  He was originally charged in state court, but the Feds picked up the case due to the fact that he impersonated a federal law enforcement officer.

The plot thickened when the female co-defendant arrived on scene as the male was being taken into custody by Prince George’s County Police.  The female allegedly showed up in full law enforcement garb, complete with tactical pants, handcuffs, a radio, an expandable baton and a handgun.  According to court documents she claimed the dog was her emotional support animal and questioned why the police were arresting a U.S. Marshal.  Her pleas were not met by much sympathy, as the male was taken to jail and the dog was impounded by animal services.  For some reason the female was not arrested by county police officers at the scene, and a short time later she made her way to animal services, once again in full police garb.  The female showed up in a police style vehicle and a black bulletproof vest, and identified herself as a U.S. Marshal to animal services employees.  She apparently presented an identification card with U.S. Marshal’s insignia, which was convincing enough for animal services to release the dog to her custody.

Based on the evidence presented in the initial appearance, it seems federal prosecutors have ample evidence to sustain convictions for false impersonation, which is a felony with a 3-year maximum penalty.  Federal agents also executed a search warrant upon the male defendant’s home, and seized firearms including an AR style rifle and a pump action shotgun.  As a result of his prior criminal record, the male defendant faces up to 10 years in prison for felon in possession of a firearm.  The female does not appear to have been charged with any firearm related offenses, but her alleged possession of a handgun will certainly be taken into consideration at a potential sentencing hearing.  In federal court especially, the judges focus on the statement of facts in its entirety and not simply the charge or charges that are part of the plea.  Judges in Maryland do not take unlawful possession of a firearm lightly regardless of whether the defendant has a prior criminal record.  It is interesting to note that the female could not have faced firearm charges in federal court because she did not possess the gun on federal property.  Federal law only prohibits firearm possession at a federal facility or possession by convicted felons or other disqualified individuals.  Further, the police did not actually arrest the female on scene, so there would have been no way to prove the handgun she possessed was actually a firearm.

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pistol-1350484_1280-300x200Back in February law enforcement officers from the St. Mary’s County Sherriff’s Office began investigating the buying and selling of firearms to minors, and at some point if became clear to officers that the target of their investigation was barely an adult himself.  Police honed in on a then 18-year-old from Lexington Park, and their investigation led to a search warrant that was executed 4 days before the suspect turned 19.  According to reports a search of the teenager’s home produced multiple regulated firearms, ammunition and parts to manufacture a rifle.  It is unclear whether the suspect was at home during the execution of the warrant, but he was not arrested until two weeks after the search and seizure.  The young defendant is now being held at the St. Mary’s County Detention Center in Leonardtown after bail was denied by the commissioner and then a district court judge.  He is currently facing four misdemeanor charges including possession of a firearm by a minor, sale of ammo to a minor and two counts of illegal sale of a regulated firearm.  Trial is currently set in the District Court of Maryland for St. Mary’s County in roughly two weeks.  The Blog will follow this case and may post a follow-up article in the near future.  The rest of this post will provide a small refresher for some of the most common gun laws in Maryland.

This defendant is facing charges under the Maryland Public Safety Code, which contains the majority of the state’s most serious gun laws, including possession of a firearm by a person under 21 years old.  While wear, transport carry violations under 4-203 of the Maryland Criminal Law article remains the most common gun offense in the state, public safety code violations account for a much larger number of jail sentences.  The Maryland public safety code provides harsh punishments for defendants who have criminal records, and in some cases, defendants can face a five-year mandatory prison sentence without the possibility of parole.  Misdemeanor public safety code violations also result in higher guideline scores in cases that are handled in the Maryland circuit courts.

The main public safety law regarding the possession of regulated firearms is found in section 5-133.  A person who has been convicted of a disqualifying crime faces up to five years in prison if found to be in possession of a firearm, but the charge remains a misdemeanor much like the wear, carry transport statute.  Disqualifying crimes include all felonies and misdemeanors that carry more than a 2-year maximum penalty.  It does not matter if the defendant actually served jail time on the prior disqualifying crime, as the only thing that matters is the statutory maximum.  Prohibited individuals also cannot possess ammunition Maryland, and doing so could result in a misdemeanor punishable by up to 1 year in jail.  Disqualifying crimes also include violent crimes, but possession of a firearm by a person with a violent crime in their record faces a felony charge and up to 15 years in prison.  If less than 5 years has passed since the defendant finished his or her sentence (including probation) on the violent crime the minimum mandatory will apply.  Violent crimes include assault in the first or second degree, robbery, sexual offenses, felony burglary (first, second or third degree burglary), arson, attempted murder and several other offenses.  A defendant in possession of a gun will also face the 15-year felony and potentially the 5-year mandatory of he or she has been convicted of a drug felony such as possession with intent to distribute.  It is important to understand that probation before judgment or PBJ counts as a conviction for any of these offenses except second degree assault.  The one exception is that PBJ for a domestically related conviction counts as a conviction for a crime of violence, though once the case is expunged it will not count as a conviction.

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hammer-802296__480-300x225The U.S. Attorney’s Office recently announced that a 55-year-old former MVA employee pleaded guilty to conspiracy to produce and transfer identification documents without lawful authority.  The identification documents at issue were Maryland driver’s licenses, and now the former employee from Anne Arundel County faces up to 15 years in prison for this fraud related felony.  According to facts presented at the plea hearing, the female defendant worked at the Largo MVA branch office in Prince George’s County and conspired with a co-worker and a male co-defendant to issue fraudulent Maryland licenses for a fee.  The co-defendant is a 36-year-old man from Virginia who also entered a guilty plea and is awaiting sentencing.  It appears that the co-defendant was the one who met with individuals seeking fraudulent licenses and accepted cash payments ranging from $800 to $5,000.  He then forwarded the information, including fraudulent documents to support the creation of a Maryland driver’s license, to the two MVA employees.  The defendant and her co-worker then created the fake licenses at the MVA branch and were paid in cash and gifts by the male co-defendant.  Per the plea agreement, the defendant received at least $25,000 in cash and gifts for her role in producing at least 276 fraudulent driver’s licenses.

The defendant’s MVA co-worker was not named in the press release, which means he/she has not been charged or has a sealed criminal complaint pending.  It could also mean the unnamed co-worker has been cooperating with law enforcement.  Two agencies were mentioned by the U.S. Attorney’s Office as heading up the investigation.  The first was the MVA’s Office of Investigations and Internal Affairs, which is not a traditional law enforcement agency.  Rather, the office conducts its own internal investigations about potential frauds regarding licenses, compulsory insurance, vehicle registrations, unlicensed vehicle sales and suspended or revoked driving privileges.  The internal affairs agents then forward their findings to federal, state and local law enforcement agencies for potential prosecution.  In this case the MVA’s internal affairs office forwarded its findings over to the Baltimore office of Homeland Security Investigations.  Homeland Security pays close attention to all state and federally issued ID cards, so it’s no surprise that a fraud of this magnitude was prosecuted in federal court.  Sentencing is currently set for the beginning of August at the federal courthouse in Greenbelt.  In addition to potential prison time the former state employee also must pay $25,000 in criminal restitution.  The Blog will follow this case and the co-defendant’s case and may post a follow-up article in the future.

Benjamin Herbst is a Maryland criminal defense lawyer who specializes in fraud charges such as counterfeiting, identity fraud, credit card crimes and public fraud.  He also has extensive experience representing clients in misdemeanor charges such prescription fraud and possession of fictitious government ID card (fake ID charges).  Fake ID cases are also commonly charged as misrepresentation of age to obtain alcohol, and Benjamin has successfully defended dozens of these cases.  His two main priorities are keeping his clients out of jail and making sure they do not walk out of court with a criminal record.  Benjamin has achieved numerous dismissals in fake ID cases, and then has assisted his clients in filing for immediate expungement of their cases from the public record.  In addition to fraud charges, Benjamin also represents clients charged with theft, unauthorized removal of property, failure to return a rental vehicle, misconduct in office and all other white collar crimes.  Contact Benjamin anytime at 410-207-2598 for a free consultation about your case.  Benjamin has represented clients in all 23 counties in Maryland plus Baltimore City, and has defended cases in the Baltimore and Greenbelt federal courts.

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medpot-300x188The legalization of marijuana in Maryland is now officially in the hands of the voters, as the cannabis reform bill became law at the recent close of the 2022 legislative session in Annapolis.  Rather than endorse the bill with his signature, the governor simply let it take effect without a veto.  The difference is mere from over function, and accumulating the votes is the only major hurdle that remains for state sponsored recreational cannabis.  House Bill 837 lays out the basic rules for implementation of the policy, and if the referendum passes in November, lawmakers will be back at it in 2023 to provide the finishing touches.  The bill is over 50 pages and packed with financial and data collecting components that we will not dissect in this post.  Rather, we’ll focus on the criminal law aspects of the bill that will have a direct impact on law enforcement’s marijuana related contact with citizens.

There are two important dates to mark down when first reading the bill, as none of the provisions will become state law immediately upon passage of the referendum in November.  Assuming the voters do what the polls have predicted and vote yay on the law, the earliest date that marijuana will officially become legal is July 1, 2023.  But, come January of 2023 it will no longer be a crime to possess more than 10 grams of marijuana.  The new threshold amount for criminal charges to kick in will become 2.5 ounces.  Possession of marijuana less than 2.5 ounces will temporarily become a civil offense punishable by a fine of up to $250.  If the amount is less than 1.5 ounces the fine will be capped at $100.  The legislature has also finally considered the various forms of cannabis products in the new law, and that is a good thing for those who are found with products such as concentrates and edibles.  Currently a person in possession of a THC vape cartridge or a container of gummies could face charges for possession not marijuana, which is a more serious offense than possession over 10 grams.  The new law includes all THC related products and breaks them down into a “civil amount” and a “personal use” amount.  A civil amount includes less than 2.5 ounces of flower cannabis, less than 20 grams of concentrates (oil or shatter) and less than 1,250 milligrams of general THC products (edibles).  A personal use amount is less than 1.5 ounces of flower, less than 12 grams of concentrates and less than 750 milligrams of THC edibles.  Personal and civil use will dictate the amount of fines, and the amount a person is able to share with another.  Assuming the referendum passes, the legislature will have to decide whether to use the same personal use or civil use amounts, or different amounts that would be legal for adults to possess.

Another major criminal law component of the bill includes modified penalties for possession with intent to distribute marijuana and manufacturing (growing) cannabis plants.  Come 2023 it will no longer be a felony to sell, grow or possess with intent to distribute pot or THC products.  The potential punishment will be a misdemeanor with a 3-year maximum jail sentence, though trafficking in marijuana will remain a felony.  Manufacturing charges will only apply to adults over the age of 21 growing more than 2 plants, and the 2-plant limit applies to the entire household.  It will not be a crime starting in 2023 to grow up to two cannabis plants in a home, as long as certain safety precautions are met.  Other provisions of the law include mandatory expungement and the release of those serving jail time for marijuana possession cases and the shortening of the expungement process for possession with intent to distribute marijuana.

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annapolis-237078_960_720-300x195The 2022 Maryland legislative session has come to a close, and now the Governor must decide the fate of numerous bills that passed the House and Senate.  In total there were 140 enacted bills this year, but less than 20 were criminal law related.  There will be no groundbreaking criminal laws going into effect this year, though the marijuana referendum will steal headlines for several weeks in the fall, and again when recreational marijuana becomes a reality.  Regardless of the lack of headlines, there are still multiple new criminal laws worth discussing.  First, lawmakers took measures to beef up the penalty for a violation of a protective order by prohibiting merger for sentencing with the underlying act that caused the violation.  This means if a person violates a protective order by trespassing, assault, harassment or other related offense he or she may be sentenced for that act and the protective order violation.  The sentences could be consecutive, which means a first-time offender could face an additional 90 days in jail, and a subsequent offender could face an additional year.  The law also reaffirms that a police officer shall arrest a person believed to have violated an interim, temporary or final protective order.

Another criminal bill passed by the Maryland General Assembly this year includes a provision that will limit the use of the spousal privilege in criminal trials.  A person cannot be compelled to testify against his or her spouse for second degree assault and other misdemeanor offenses, but the law currently does not require the marriage to have been in effect before the crime.  Apparently there have been cases where a defendant and a victim decided to marry while the criminal case was pending, and then assert the privilege.  Somehow lawmakers caught wind that this was an ongoing issue, and decided to take a stand.  When this provision becomes law, the prosecution will be required to ask a victim when he or she became married to the defendant.  Lawmakers additionally passed a bill authorizing local animal control offices to recover costs of housing and treating animals that are seized as a result of animal cruelty charges or other violations.  The law will limit the amount recovered to $15 per day per animal, which will also prohibit animal control from abusing their right to recover costs.  Other new criminal laws include a provision where the Department of Public Safety and Correctional Services to notify the Baltimore Police Department within 24 hours of each person released from a pre-trial detention facility.  This piece of legislation is another example of the state telling the Baltimore City government that it has been wholly incompetent in keeping the peace.  The state and the feds will likely keep intervening with the hope that violence will one day start to decline in Maryland’s largest city.

This year lawmakers made an effort to expand the definition of the crime of stalking to include electronic communication and tracking.  It is now a crime to use a phone or other device that can locate another person’s phone without their consent.  Electronic communications currently are a means to establish harassment course of conduct and protective order violations, but now these communications can be used to prove stalking.  Under Maryland law stalking is a misdemeanor, but carries a harsh 5-year maximum penalty.  The Blog will continue to follow the new criminal laws passed this year, and will update as more news comes from the governor’s office.  We will also continue to follow the marijuana referendum that is scheduled for November.  If you have a criminal law question or have been charged with an crime or traffic violation, contact Maryland criminal defense lawyer Benjamin Herbst anytime for a free consultation.  Benjamin specializes in domestic violence charges such as assault, protective order violations, harassment and stalking.  He is available 7 days a week at 410-207-2598 for a free consultation and offers flexible payment arrangements for criminal cases.  Benjamin is also licensed to practice law in Florida and the federal criminal defense in Baltimore, Greenbelt, Salisbury and the various military bases in Maryland.

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pills_money-300x199Back in February of 2020 a 33-year-old man from Waldorf was found guilty of several drug and firearms offenses in the Greenbelt federal courthouse.  It took more than two years for the case to go to sentencing, and the wait did not turn out to be in the defendant’s favor, as he was sentenced to 40 years of incarceration.  The lengthy sentence was handed down yesterday for charges including distribution of fentanyl resulting in death, conspiracy, possession with intent to distribute controlled substances, possession of a firearm in furtherance of a drug trafficking crime and possession of firearm by a convicted felon.  The charges stemmed from incidents that occurred back in 2017, which included two drug deals that resulted in the overdose deaths.  The government was able to establish sufficient evidence to prove the charges through text messages, phone records, surveillance video and live testimony from multiple witnesses who purchased narcotics from the defendant.  A few months after the two overdose deaths law enforcement was able to secure a search warrant for the defendant’s Waldorf apartment.  The defendant was arrested on the day of the search and seizure in April of 2018, and has been held in custody without bail since that time.

Upon execution of the search warrant law enforcement recovered five firearms including a loaded .45 caliber handgun that was found in a backpack next to 121 individually packaged baggies of fentanyl.  These facts supported the jury’s guilty verdict for the charge of possession of a firearm in furtherance of a drug trafficking crime, which is a commonly charged offense in Maryland state courts as well as federal courts.  The government was also able to establish that the defendant had prior felony convictions that prohibited him from possessing firearms.  Police also seized over 200 grams of heroin/fentanyl mix, 40 grams of cocaine, 12 cell phones, $22,000 in cash, digital scales, money counters and jewelry including a Rolex and diamonds.  All of these factors tended in prove that the defendant was involved in a large-scale narcotics distribution operation in Southern Maryland, but the 40-year sentence was undoubtedly due to the two overdose deaths that the jury felt were caused by the defendant.

A few months after the defendant’s trial his co-defendant from St. Mary’s County was sentenced to 12.5 years in federal prison for distribution of fentanyl.  As part of the plea the co-defendant admitted his distribution led to the overdose deaths of same two individuals, though he did not actually plead guilty to the offense of distribution resulting in death.  It is likely that the co-defendant cooperated with law enforcement in exchange for his relatively lenient sentence, though the U.S. Attorney’s Office press release did not directly say that he was called as a witness during the main defendant’s trial.

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dui2-300x199In 2016 Maryland lawmakers passed Noah’s Law, which mandated the installation of engine interlock devices for anyone convicted of DUI.  The law also significantly increased administrative driver’s license suspensions for those who either refused to take a breathalyzer test or for those who tested over the legal limit of .08.  Interlock devices, commonly known as “blow and goes”, require a driver to produce a negative breath alcohol test prior to starting the car, and at random times during the car trip.  They have become more technologically advanced over the last several years, and most now include cameras to verify the person giving the breath sample is actually the driver.  The technology has its faults though, and we have seen numerous cases of the devices malfunctioning or causing damage to vehicles.  Despite some shortcomings, interlock devices have been hailed by lawmakers and lobbyists as highly effective at reducing the number of impaired drivers on the road.  There were apparently 3,700 failed interlock tests in 2021 that resulted in the vehicle being disabled, and those in support of the devices have been quick to conclude this number directly translated to 3,700 less drunk drivers on the road.  Regardless of the exact numbers, the devices for the most part do what they are intended to do, and as a result have become a massive business for manufacturers and installers.

While Noah’s law was considered groundbreaking at the time, and resulted in many states following suit with their own interlock requirements, there are what some consider shortcomings in the law.  Currently judges are only required to order a defendant to install interlock upon a conviction for DUI.  This means than defendants who receive probation before judgment or PBJ are not required by law to install interlock.  Over the years judges in Maryland have become stricter when it comes to granting PBJ in DUI cases, and it is no longer a forgone conclusion for first-timers.  On the other hand, first-time offenders who have done all the right things leading up to court (completing alcohol education etc.) and show remorse have a good chance of leaving court with a PBJ.  According to reports nearly half of the 14,000 Maryland drunk driving defendants received PBJ in 2021, and the percentage of first-time offenders receiving PBJ would likely be much higher than 50%.  In addition to the PBJ loophole, defendants convicted of DWI, which carries lower maximum jail time, fines and points, can currently avoid installing interlock in their cars.  Strengthening Noah’s law would likely result in all DUI and DWI defendants who enter guilty pleas being required to install interlock.

The interlock bills being debated in Annapolis deal with requirements imposed by a judge in court, but the court case is only half the equation in a drunk driving case.  A Maryland driver who is charged with DUI or DWI and refuses to take a breathalyzer test must currently must install interlock in order to avoid a mandatory license suspension of 270 days.  Defendants who take the test and blow over .15 must also install interlock or face a 6-month suspension.  These requirements are imposed administratively by the MVA, and can only be amended at a hearing in limited circumstances.  A Maryland driver who refuses the breath test or blows over .15 may be able to secure a work vehicle exception to the interlock requirement by requesting a hearing in front of an Administrative Law Judge or ALJ.  An ALJ can also grant a work-only restricted license in cases where the defendant blew under .15, but cannot grant a restricted license in a refusal case.  These time frames are for first time offenders, and repeat offenders could face as much as a two-year suspension in refusal cases.

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cannabis-1418339__340-300x290The Maryland House of Delegates has done its part to assure that Maryland will legalize the recreational use of marijuana in the near future, and now the matter is in the hands of the Senate.  Back in December we posted about House Bill 1 that was pre-filed before the 2022 legislative session began in Annapolis.  The bill was designed to get the ball rolling and establish that legalizing marijuana would ultimately be up to Maryland voters in the November general election, and it passed easily in the House.  The next step was to hammer out the specific regulations regarding recreational cannabis use, and this bill, House Bill 837 also passed easily.  Last week both of these bills were up for discussion in the Senate, and it appears there will be no major roadblocks to coming up with a mutually agreeable policy.

House Bill 837 lays a detailed foundation for what Maryland citizens can expect if recreational cannabis passes in November.  Senate Bill 833 attempts to carve out the same regulations, but it differs slightly in terms of lawful amounts and potential punishments for violations.  The bill that ultimately passes the General Assembly will probably be a conglomerate of both bills, so at this point we’ll just point out the general rules that citizens can expect when pot becomes legal in 2023.  The House and Senate both agree that the lawful amount of marijuana a person can possess in public should be more than 10 grams.  The House is currently proposing a personal use limit of 1.5 ounces or 2 plants, while the Senate is proposing 2 ounces or up to 4 plants.  It seems that anyone 21 or older will be able to possess at least 1.5 ounces without fear of being issued a civil citation for unlawful possession of marijuana.  The House also included a separate threshold for the “civil use amount” but his seems unnecessary and confusing.  Both the House and Senate seem to agree that smoking pot in public should be a civil offense punishable by a fine.  Those who are in violation would be issued a civil violation citation by a police officer, which is similar to a traffic citation.  The person receiving the citation could pay the fine, request community service in lieu of the fine or request a trial date to contest the citation (or ask for probation before judgement).  Defendants who are charged with civil marijuana violations must respond to the citation in some manner, or risk having their case become part of the public record.

The House and Senate also addressed the cultivation of marijuana and potential violations for exceeding the permitted amounts in their respective bills.  The House seemed to bring the hammer when it comes to growing pot, as its proposal makes it a misdemeanor punishable by up to 3 years in jail for growing more than 2 plants.  The Senate bill maintains that growing more than 4 plants would be illegal, but only trigger a civil violation.  It is important to understand that the eventual recreational cannabis law would still prohibit distribution or possession with intent to distribute.  There has been no indication that this offense would be reduced to a misdemeanor, though at some point in the future this could be something lawmakers consider.  The Maryland sentencing guidelines are already changing this summer independent of cannabis legislation, and the recommended sentences for most drug cases are thankfully decreasing.  It would be nice if we could affirmatively say that no street level marijuana transactions could result in a jail sentence, but it seems we’re just not there yet.  On the other hand, the House and Senate seem to agree that those with prior marijuana related cases should not be at risk of damaging background checks.  When the law goes into effect next year it will almost certainly include provisions for the automatic expungement of older cannabis cases.

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hammer-719066_960_720-300x225This past week in Annapolis a sweeping juvenile justice reform bill passed in the Maryland Senate, and now the bill heads to the House for debate.  The 23-page bill proposes numerous modifications to the existing juvenile justice system, but perhaps the most noteworthy is the section that would eliminate most prosecutions of juveniles under the age of 13.  Juvenile criminal courts currently have jurisdiction over children as young as 7, but the new measure would end criminal prosecution of children under 13 unless they are charged with crimes of violence such as first-degree assault, robbery, felony sex offenses, arson and attempted murder.  In these situations, the minimum age for  criminal prosecution in a Maryland juvenile court would become ten.  This measure would free up resources for juvenile offenders who are facing more serious charges, and who may benefit from a wider range of services provided by the department.

Another major change proposed in the juvenile justice bill would give more authority for intake officers to resolve cases before they are sent to court.  Currently juvenile services intake officers must forward all felony cases to the State’s Attorney’s Office.  The State then has 30 days to decide whether to file a juvenile delinquency petition in the appropriate circuit court.  In contrast, a juvenile intake officer may resolve a misdemeanor by closing the case with a warning or offering informal supervision.  Misdemeanor cases would still be able to be filed in the circuit court if the State or the victim objects to the intake officer’s decision.  This is a long overdue modification, as it is a major waste of resources to set juvenile cases for intake hearings if there is no chance the case can be resolved.  Intake hearings for felony cases are currently futile, as the officer’s hands are tied.  Rather than keep a blanket provision that strips the intake officers of power to do their job, the legislature is moving toward trusting the officers to make a decision on a case-by-case basis.  There are limitations on this proposal however, as intake officers would still have to forward all felony crimes of violence to the State, as well as cases where the allegation is causing or attempting to cause death or physical injury to another.  The physical injury terminology may have to be revised to reflect serious bodily injury though, as physical injury is a rather general term.

The bill also adds a provision that allows the State and the defense to hold delinquency proceedings in abeyance in favor of a term of informal adjustment.  If the State and defense agree, the child may have the ability to complete certain conditions and then be awarded with a dismissal of the delinquency petition.  This type of diversionary track has traditionally been accomplished by way of a STET, but establishing an official system to avoid adjudications going on a juvenile’s record is a welcomed tool.  Other new provisions include reducing the time between detention hearings for all juveniles held to every 14 days instead of every 25 days, and barring juveniles from being sent to out-of-home placements if the most serious charge is a misdemeanor or on a technical violation of probation.  Firearm offenses would be the exception to this provision, and may still result in placement out of the home.

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