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thirteen-bags-of-marijuana-found-in-taxi-cabPolice in a wealthy suburb outside of Philadelphia recently arrested a 24-year old Maryland woman for allegedly attempting to deliver 100 pounds of marijuana to buyers waiting in a parking garage.  The marijuana was described by police as high grade, and apparently worth as much as $200,000 on the street.  This bust appeared to be the result of a long-term investigation into a high-volume drug trafficking ring between Maryland and Philadelphia.  Law enforcement officers were tipped off about the delivery prior to the woman arriving at the scene of the deal, and began to follow her as she entered the parking garage.  According to reports she was arrested before completing the deal, and a search incident to arrest of her vehicle revealed three duffel bags with numerous vacuum sealed bags of pot.  Police did not immediately release any information about the other two individuals allegedly involved in the failed drug deal, which could mean they were either undercover police officers or working with the government.  At the time of the press release the defendant was still being held in jail on a $150,000 cash bail on felony charges of possession with intent to distribute marijuana.

Normally the Blog does not post about criminal incidents that occur outside of the state of Maryland, but this bust is of not for two reasons.  First, the woman is a resident of Anne Arundel County, which has a long history of high-volume drug busts.  There are numerous highways running through Anne Arundel County and many a drug dealer has been busted after a highway traffic stop.  This defendant was from Edgewater, which is right near Highway 50 and Interstate 97.  The second reason the bust is of note is that the defendant was reportedly trying to use the Covid-19 outbreak as an opportunity to traffic a large amount of marijuana.  The press releases did not say specifically how the defendant was trying to use Covid-19 for cover, but the logic does not add up.  As we posted a few weeks back, overall crime has been down virtually everywhere and police officers have more ability to focus on suspicious activity in their jurisdictions.  While we do not know for sure that the car was registered in Maryland, a car with an out of state license plate that is traveling to meet another car in a parking garage will always raise suspicion.  During this pandemic the suspicion will be exponentially higher, as out-of-state travel has been greatly reduced.

The Blog will continue to follow this case and may post a follow up article if anything newsworthy develops.  This defendant does not appear to have any other pending criminal charges (at least in Maryland), so there is a chance she will be able to work out a favorable outcome in her case.  As always, the priorities for any criminal defense lawyer should be keeping the client out of jail and keeping the client’s record as clean as possible.  While Pennsylvania is typically considered a stricter state for most crimes, had this arrest occurred in Maryland the defendant would have faced drug trafficking charges pursuant to the volume dealer law.  Under the volume dealer statute any defendant who is possesses, manufactures or distributes more than 50 pounds of marijuana faces a 5-year mandatory prison sentence that cannot be suspended by the trial judge.  In addition, there is the possibility of a $100,000 fine and a felony conviction.  For any questions contact Maryland drug crimes lawyer Benjamin Herbst anytime at 410-207-2598.  Benjamin defends clients in all criminal charges and is available 7 days a week to offer a free consultation.   He accepts cases in all Maryland jurisdictions and is an experienced federal criminal defense lawyer who handles felony offenses and federal citations in all federal courts throughout the state.

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1380109_the_maryland_state_house-300x229Over the weekend the governor signed an order that should expedite the release of hundreds of Maryland prisoners.  There are some caveats to the order, and it only applies to prisoners serving sentences in the state-run Division of Corrections.  The governor had received multiple formal requests to consider measures to reduce the prison population in light of the Covid-19 outbreak, and this recent order is a major step in the right direction.  As of last week, there were over 130 inmates who tested positive for the virus, and the close quarters of prison facilities make social distancing guidelines impossible to follow.  While the order may be viewed as too little too late to some, even a slight reduction in the total number of inmates could exponentially reduce the risk for further spread of the virus.  The crux of the order is that it authorizes the Division of Corrections to expedite the release of any inmate who is scheduled for mandatory release within 120 days.  While DOC will not simply open the doors to those inmates with under 4 months to serve on their sentences, they could realistically be placed on supervision or home detention within a week or so.  The order also allows DOC to initiate accelerated parole for certain inmates who are over the age of 60 and have not been convicted of a crime of violence.

The order does not apply to incarcerated individuals who are serving a county sentences of less than 18 months, and those awaiting trial in county and city detention centers.  Inmates at theses facilities are not eligible for release under this particular order, but may take advantage of other orders signed by the Chief Judge of the Court of Appeals.  The Chief Judge of Maryland’s highest court in Annapolis has issued numerous orders over the last 6 weeks.  Two of the latest orders focused on encouraging judges to expedite bail review hearings and strongly consider releasing any inmate who is being held pretrial on a nonviolent charge.  The order also required the administrative judges in the district and circuit courts to schedule hearings on the next business day following the service of a warrant for a technical or minor violation of probation, a failure to appear bench warrant and warrants related to failure to pay costs or fines.  While the bail review judge still has final discretion over releasing a defendant, the hope is that judges will take this emergency situation into account and choose to release a defendant if there is any reasonable means to assure the public safety and the defendant’s return to court.

If you have an outstanding bench warrant or arrest warrant it is advisable to contact a lawyer to find out how these orders can be used to your advantage.  Judges may be more likely than ever to consider motions to recall outstanding bench warrants.  In addition, if there is an arrest warrant that cannot be recalled by a district court judge, a commissioner may be more inclined to grant bail or pretrial release at a first appearance hearing.  The Blog will continue to follow executive orders and orders signed by the Chief Judge, and may post a follow up article in the near future.  Maryland state courts are closed to the public until June 7, but judges are still conducting certain hearings via telephone or Skype.  As usual, the courts will continue to regularly hear bail review hearings and other emergency requests.  Benjamin Herbst is an experienced Maryland bail review lawyer who represents defendants in all criminal cases including domestic assault, firearm possession and drug crimes.  Benjamin represents defendants in all Maryland state and federal jurisdictions including Baltimore City and County, the Eastern Shore, Montgomery County, Prince George’s County, Western Maryland and Southern Maryland.  He has successfully represented over 1,000 defendants in criminal cases, and is available anytime for a free consultation at 410-207-2598.  Benjamin offers flexible payment plans for criminal defense cases and will do whatever it takes to achieve the best possible outcome.  Benjamin also represents clients who are injured in Maryland auto accidents, and fights to recover the maximum settlement in your case.

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technology-2500010__480-300x200Overall crime appears to be on the downturn during the coronavirus pandemic, but drug crimes may be falling at especially high levels.  The city of Chicago has more yearly crime than many states in America, but over the past month drug arrests have plummeted by 42%.  While Baltimore and D.C. have yet to release any quarantine specific statistics, there is no doubt that drug arrests are down in our area as well.  Prohibitions on large gatherings and non-essential activities has made it easier for police to focus on people that may be involved in criminal activity, and as a direct result less people are out on the street looking to buy drugs.  While the same demand for drugs likely still exists, the dealers and buyers are having a much harder time connecting to do business.

In addition to drug crimes declining, Chicago’s overall crime rate has dropped about 10 percent since the shutdown of all non-essential activities.  Fewer businesses are open, which means limited opportunity for common offenses such as retail theft and trespassing.  There are also considerably less people out on the roads, which means DUI and driving on suspended or revoked license cases are down as well.  Less people out on the roads also means less traffic stops, and traffic stops are one of the most common ways that police and citizens come in contact with each other.  Law enforcement officers are trained to look for evidence of crimes in all traffic stops, and hundreds of drug and firearm cases originate from routine traffic stops.  While there has been no indication that domestic violence cases have decreased, and certain cities such as Houston even reported an increase in domestic violence calls, the closure of bars and nightclubs has reduced cases involving disorderly conduct and non-domestic assault.  Another factor to consider is there may be less police officers patrolling the streets.  In New York City, the NYPD has almost 7,000 officers out on sick leave, and police officers may be reluctant (or ordered) to avoid citizen contact unless absolutely necessary.  This is definitely the case in Baltimore, where the State’s Attorney’s Office is declining to prosecute minor misdemeanor charges.

The crime drop has not been limited to the United States, as Peru recently reported an 84% decrease in its crime rate over the last month.  South Africa and El Salvador have also reported significant drops in violent crime over the course of the last month.  Based on what we have seen across the world it seems like March, April and May will end up being with extremely low arrest numbers in Maryland.  The low will undoubtedly be followed by a significant spike once things return to normal, though a return to normal won’t just happen overnight.  The Blog will continue to follow all criminal news stories during this unusual time.  Law enforcement officers in Maryland have continued to make arrests for violations of the governor’s executive order, which is a misdemeanor offense under the public safety code.  As of this week, 34 people have been arrested for this offense, including a Charles County man who held a 60-person bonfire party after being warned to stop hosting parties.  A pawn shop owner in Queen Anne’s County was also arrested for continuing to operate his business, and a Carroll County man was arrested for hosting a hotel party with minors present.  We will continue to comment on these stories, and will update on any future court closures as news comes out of Annapolis.  If you have been arrested for any offense in Maryland contact criminal defense lawyer Benjamin Herbst for a free consultation.  Benjamin specializes in drug crimes, domestic assault, juvenile criminal cases, DUI and felony offenses in every Maryland jurisdiction.  Contact Benjamin anytime at 410-207-2598.

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handcuffs-2102488__480-300x169It has been a little over one month since the governor declared a state of emergency in Maryland due to the outbreak of COVID-19, and multiple executive orders have followed.  The most recent order reaffirmed the governor’s decision to close non-essential businesses such as fitness centers, bars, theaters, malls, tanning and hair salons, and recreational establishments such as campgrounds and golf courses.  The order also prohibits large gatherings of more than 10 people and essentially requires citizens to stay at home unless they are performing an essential task such as working, shopping for essentials items or taking care of people or pets.  This executive order is not a suggestion, and provides criminal sanctions for non-compliance.  Police have the authority to arrest and charge anyone who they witness to be in direct violation of the executive order, and it didn’t take long for the first arrests to be reported.

As of yesterday, 14 people had been arrested for violating the executive order, which is a first-degree misdemeanor that carries up to one year in jail and a $5,000 fine.  The actual criminal offense is listed in the section 14-3A-08 of the Maryland Public Safety Code.  The public safety code is best known for its laws prohibiting firearm possession by certain individuals, but it also deals with the rarely used Governor’s Health Emergency Powers.  A violation of this statue must be knowing and willful, and it cannot be assumed a person was aware of the executive order.  While must people have been glued to the news for the past few weeks, the current situation is still being underestimated by some.  This probably means that most or all of the individuals who were arrested were warned by police before they were taken into custody.

Based on what we have seen in various news outlets, it seems like most of the arrests stemmed from parties where individuals were violating the provision of the order banning gatherings of more than 10 people.  Two Salisbury men were recently arrested under this circumstance, and one was found to have a weapon after being searched incident to arrest. Both were also charged with failure to obey a law enforcement officer, which is a 60-day misdemeanor similar to disorderly conduct.  These two individuals are scheduled to appear in Wicomico County District Court on June 5, though it is still up in the air whether court will be in session at that time.  As of now, courts are closed to the public until May 4, and all trials scheduled for April will be postponed.

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hammer-802296__480-300x225Last week the Chief Judge of the Court of Appeals issued an order extending the closure of all state courts to the public through May 1, 2020.  Anyone who had a criminal trial set in the Month of April will have their case automatically reset to a later date, likely in June or beyond.  This applies to circuit and district court trials, and any motions that require witness testimony.  Judges and court staff will still be working at courthouses around the state, and will be ruling on motions that do not require witness testimony or the introduction of evidence.  This includes motions to recall bench warrants and arrest warrants.  Anyone who has a warrant for a failure to appear or for a violation of probation should write to the judge or contact a lawyer to file a motion to recall that warrant.  This is not the time to be picked up on an outstanding warrant and taken to jail.

If a person happens arrested on a district court bench warrant, he or she will be taken before a court commissioner, who hopefully will order release on recognizance.  Defendants that are not released by the commissioner will be taken before a district court judge the next business day.  The defense lawyer and a prosecutor will be the only non-staff members to be permitted into the building for the bail review hearing.  Family members and witnesses will not be permitted to enter and attend the hearing.  Anyone arrested on a circuit court bench warrant will not see the commissioner, and be taken directly before a circuit court judge on the next business day.  The same rules apply in the circuit court regarding who may attend the hearing.  Maryland circuit courts will also conduct habeas corpus bail review hearings as normal, and in many cases the hearings will be set sooner than normal due to the circumstances.

In addition to bail reviews, the district court judges will also continue to handle body attachments and emergency evaluation petitions.  District court judges will also preside over new quarantine and isolation violations that the governor put in place.  District court commissioners will hear protective order petitions, and if granted they will remain in place as temporary protective orders until court is back in session.  District court commissioners will also hear bench warrant satisfactions, which means that if a motion to recall bench warrant is denied the defendant may report to a commissioner to take care of the warrant.  Any defendant who turns him or herself in with the commissioner may have an attorney present at the hearing.

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police-224426__180Last week the Baltimore City State’s Attorney made headlines for publicly directing her prosecutors to dismiss numerous non-violent cases.  The cases that will be dismissed involve defendants who are arrested on new charges in Baltimore City during these extremely unique times.  The charges specifically mentioned by the State’s Attorney include CDS drug possession, prostitution, trespassing, attempted distribution of CDS, open container, traffic citations, rogue and vagabond and urinating in public.  It is important to understand that anyone who has already been charged with these offenses will not simply get a pass when their case eventually is scheduled for trial.  The directive only applies to the prosecutors that are working in the Central Booking jail facility, which means only defendants taken to jail will have their cases dropped.

At first glance the press release makes it seem like the Baltimore City prosecutor is softening up on non-violent crime in these trying times, but in reality the purpose of the directive seems to be aimed at reducing the population at central booking.  Police officers are now on notice that if they arrest a defendant for certain non-violent offenses, their work will be in vain.  But arresting a suspect for a non-violent crime is hardly the norm these days, nor should it be.  Police in Baltimore City can still detain individuals for drug possession, trespassing, prostitution and for breaking into cars (rogue and vagabond), but they will have to charge those suspects by issuing a citation or a summons to appear in court.  For the time being in Baltimore City, it will be catch and release for most non-violent offenders.

This press release came a few months after the State’s Attorney had already directed her prosecutors to dismiss all marijuana possession cases.  She has received pushback for ignoring the legislative process by choosing not to prosecute certain laws, so it’s easy to see why the critics might be jumping up and down about this news.  A Baltimore mayoral candidate called the directive a PR stunt and insinuated that the prosecutor is abusing her power.  In a less direct criticism, the Carroll County State’s Attorney publicly stated that his office would continue to enforce all Maryland laws, and that no suspect would be given a free pass.  He also went on to state that his office will continue to prosecute any violations of the governor’s temporary executive orders, which among other things closed down gyms, restaurants for dining in, bars and prohibits gatherings of more than 10 people.  Any violation of these and potential future executive orders could result in a jail sentence of up to 1 year and a $5,000 fine.

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virus-1812092__480-300x150On Friday the Chief Judge of Maryland’s highest court signed an administrative order closing all state courthouses to the public for at least the next three weeks.  The announcement may have initially been a surprise, but as the impact of the coronavirus continued to unfold it was clear the judiciary had no other option.  It is important to know that the closure only applies to the public and not judiciary employees.  The district and circuit courthouses will continue to operate, and judges will continue to issue rulings on motions.  All criminal trials and most other hearings will be postponed.  One of the main exceptions is that bail reviews will still proceed as normal.  Defendants arrested during the next three weeks will still see the district court commissioner within 24 hours to determine whether bail, pre-trial supervision or recognizance is appropriate.  If release is denied by the commissioner, defendants will then see a district court judge at a video bail review the next business day.  In Baltimore City it could take two business days to see the judge, and as many as 3 or 4 total days if the arrest occurred on a Friday.   Defendants arrested on circuit court arrest warrants will be taken before a circuit court judge the next business day, and those with preset bails will be permitted have bail bondsmen post.  It is unclear at this point whether family members will be permitted to attend bail review hearings. The most likely scenario is that attendance will be limited to the defendant’s lawyer.

In addition to bail reviews proceeding as normal, habeas corpus motions will also be heard in the circuit courts.  Habeas corpus motions are filed when a district court judge denies bail, and are typically the fastest and sometimes only way to have a defendant released prior to trial.  Habeas motions are popular in larger jurisdictions such as Baltimore County, where the turnaround time of 10 days to 2 weeks will likely speed up due to the postponement of most other hearings.  Habeas motions are often successful due to the circuit court judges having the experience and knowledge required to make the unpopular decision to release a defendant who is facing serious charges.  It is safe to say at least some district court judges are known for not abiding by the principal of using the least restrictive means to assure the public’s safety and the defendant’s return to court.

Other district and circuit court hearings that will proceed normally include peace order and protective order petitions, arraignments, initial appearances, extradition hearings, and various juvenile hearings such as shelter hearings and juvenile detention hearings.  Contempt hearings and appeals from district court peace orders will also be held in the circuit court.  The judge also included text in the order to allow the courts to conduct quarantine and isolation hearings should they be placed into effect during this extraordinary time.  We obviously hope these lines prove to be merely a precautionary measure.

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thirteen-bags-of-marijuana-found-in-taxi-cabAs the Maryland criminal code continues to evolve with the times there is an increasing need to address the issue of expungement.  Maryland has a fair and user-friendly expungement process, and in most cases, there is no fee to apply.  Lawmakers already did away with the $30 application fee for all criminal cases where there was a dismissal, nolle prosequi, STET or PBJ.  The one problem with the expungement process though is that most lay people do not realize they are eligible to apply.  This is especially true for defendants who were found guilty of offenses that are no longer crimes (such as possession of less than 10 grams of marijuana), defendants with older cases and those who live in other states.  This year the legislature is taking steps to assure uninformed defendants can still reap the benefits of the Maryland expungement process.  Or better stated, to assure uniformed defendants do not continue to suffer collateral consequences such as difficulty finding employment due to prior criminal charges.

There are two bills in Annapolis that are currently up for debate that would establish procedure for the courts to automatically seal or expunge cases without requiring the defendant to apply.  The bill that is currently in the Senate calls for the courts to automatically expunge all older cases involving only the possession of marijuana by October of 2022.  The bill would also require expungement of all new marijuana cases to commence 4 years of the disposition date.  In cases where there are other criminal counts, expungement of the marijuana counts must be completed by October of 2028.  This particular bill has received push back from the Chief Judge of the District Court as well as the Baltimore County State’s Attorney, who have argued that automatic expungement would be too large a burden for the courts and prosecutors to handle.  The expungement process requires an answer from the state and multiple orders to be signed and sent to the various organizations that keep records of criminal cases.  This includes police departments and the district court clerk’s office, who must then file certificates of compliance after the files are destroyed.  Automatic expungement would certainly cause an immense amount of work at one time should this bill become law.

The House of Delegates bill proposes a solution that would require exponentially less paperwork for government offices.  This proposal would require the courts to automatically seal prior marijuana cases from public view after an enumerated time frame.  The process of sealing would be a matter of simply blocking the case from appearing on the popular Maryland Judiciary Case Search web site.  This process is similar to what occurs with older payable traffic citations and civil marijuana citations.  The supporters of the bill argue that the main purpose of preventing prejudice against defendants with marijuana cases would be addressed through the sealing process.

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graphics-882726_640-300x207The notorious former mayor of Baltimore City learned her fate last week in federal court, and will now have to serve three years in prison followed by three years of supervised release.  The 69-year old must also pay over $400,000 in restitution to victims of her crimes, and forfeit almost $670,000 in assets including property that was purchased with illegally gained funds.  The sentence was announced by the United States Attorney’s Office for the District of Maryland, the FBI and the IRS.  The former mayor will likely surrender to the Federal Bureau of Prisons within the next couple of months, and be assigned to a minimum-security facility or prison camp.  Since there is no parole under federal law, the former mayor could serve a little more than 30 months in prison, with the potential for an earlier release to a halfway house.

The former mayor was sentenced on four separate criminal counts including conspiracy to commit wire fraud, conspiracy to defraud the United States and two counts of tax evasion.  All four offenses are classified as felonies under federal law, and the mayor will now live the rest of her life as a convicted felon.  According to the facts stipulated in the guilty plea that took place a few months ago, the former mayor conspired with her 38-year old legislative aide to carry out a complex web of frauds over the course a nearly decade long business relationship.  The major fraud scheme was related to the mayor’s three-part children’s book series, which was created in 2011.  The defendant and her aide contracted with the University of Maryland Medical System to deliver 20,000 books in each series for $5 per copy.  This $300,000 contract stipulated in part that the books would be delivered to Baltimore City schools, but the former mayor instead resold the books to other charities to generate more profits.

Defrauding the University of Maryland and other non-profits was only half of the scheme, as the former mayor did not report any of these illegal profits to the IRS.  Rather, the two co-conspirators funneled the money to straw donors, fictitious citizens who donated money to the mayor’s reelection campaigns.  The mayor also issued checks to her former legislative aide for services that were never rendered.  The money was either turned into untraceable cash or money orders, or used to pay credit card bills and legal fees.  The legislative aide faced charges for violating Maryland election laws in 2017, and it was likely that UM and other non-profits paid for his legal fees.  The aide was ultimately convicted for violating election laws and had his nomination to serve as a state delegate taken away by the governor.

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pistol-1350484_1280-300x200The Maryland governor has not been shy about his strong desire to do whatever is necessary to curb gun violence in Baltimore City, and he recently called out state lawmakers for dragging their feet on enacting stricter gun legislation.  Since the 2020 legislative session began in January there have been over 100 shootings in Baltimore City, and each incident is a constant reminder that efforts to reverse the alarming crime rate have been largely ineffective.  In response to the violence, three new criminal justice bills were introduced with the unwavering support from the governor himself.  The first bill, entitled The Violent Firearms Offenders Act, was designed to increase punishments for certain firearms offenses, and includes brand new mandatory prison sentences for certain crimes.  The next bill, The Judicial Transparency Act, was introduced as a measure to hold Circuit Court judges accountable for their sentences in certain violent offenses such as robbery, carjacking, sexual assault, kidnapping, arson and first-degree assault by establishing a database for all sentences handed down in theses cases.  The third bill, The Witness Intimidation Prevention Act, was introduced to increase penalties for witness tampering and witness intimidation.  All three of these bills allegedly have received overwhelming support from the Baltimore City residents and Maryland residents alike, but all three appear to be going nowhere in Annapolis.

The governor recently expressed his displeasure with the legislature for not jumping at the opportunity to push these bills toward his desk for a signature, but he should understand that not all bills designed to punish criminals are beneficial.  It is easy for the public to stand behind a bill that increases punishment for gun offenders, but when minimum mandatory sentences are involved the cost can outweigh the benefit.  The Violent Firearms Offenders Act increases the penalty for using a firearm in a crime of violence and adds possession of a firearm as a non-technical probation violation.  Both of these provisions seem reasonable, and are not likely causing the legislature to second guess the bill.  In our opinion the holdup appears to be related to the establishment of new mandatory sentences for theft of a firearm and for transferring a firearm to a prohibited individual.  The bill seeks to add a 2-year mandatory sentence for theft of a firearm and unlawful transfer of a firearm for all defendants, including first-time offenders.  These mandatory sentences will not allow the judge to consider all factors such as the defendant’s background, lack of intent to commit a violent crime and age.  In essence the mandatory penalty groups all defendants and their cases together, which does not promote a just sentence.

The Judicial Transparency Act takes a degree of autonomy away from judges, and flies in the face of separation of powers.  Judges should not have to worry about how their particular sentence would look in a database.  They are entrusted with the responsibility to hand down a just sentence based on the facts of the case and the characteristics of the defendant.  A database, especially one that will become highly political, will undermine the autonomy of the bench and should not be established.  As for the Witness Intimidation Act, we believe this bill will be eventually approved by the General Assembly, though its effectiveness as a deterrent is arguable.  The current witness intimidation laws already provide strict punishments.

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