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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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money-943782_960_720-300x225The second of two defendants who committed a 2018 armed robbery in Baltimore City was sentenced last week to 9 years in federal prison.  The 29-year old defendant was originally charged in state court with, but about 7 months after the robbery the Baltimore City State’s Attorney’s Office entered the charges nolle prosequi, which meant they declined to prosecute the case.  While a nolle pros. is usually a cause for celebration, in this case it was the opposite, as the case was dismissed in state court after federal prosecutors decided to take over.

As detailed in guilty plea, in February of 2018 the defendant and another Baltimore City man walked into a restaurant brandishing a firearm and demanded money from the cash register.  In addition to taking cash from the register and the tip jar, the defendants also took personal belongings at gunpoint from patrons at the restaurant.  After the defendants left the restaurant a 911 call to the Baltimore Police was placed and officers arrived on scene shortly thereafter.  One officer was canvassing the area of the robbery, and located two suspects in an alley counting cash up against a brick wall.  The suspects matched the description in the 911 call, and the counting money in an alleyway was certainly another cause for concern.  Both suspects were detained and searched, and police found $272 in cash, a bag of change, two masks, two bandannas, two cell phones that belonged to victims and a receipt from the restaurant.  Police also found a loaded handgun in the vicinity that matched the description a victim gave of the gun used in the robbery.

There was little question that police had detained and arrested the right suspects, and a show-up identification by the victims confirmed what police already knew.  The only questions remaining were who would prosecute the case, and how much time the defendants would receive.  Initially the case began as a Baltimore City District Court case, and a month after the incident the State filed a 25-count indictment in the Circuit Court for Baltimore City, which included charges for first and second degree assault, armed robbery, robbery, use of a firearm in a crime of violence and firearm possession by a convicted felon.  The charges regarding firearm use in a violent crime and possession by a convicted felon both carry 5-year mandatory minimum sentences upon conviction.  Either way the defendants were likely going to serve at least 5 years, but ultimately the feds decided they would prosecute the case.

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police-224426__180Last week a former Baltimore police detective was sentenced to 18 months in prison followed by 2 years of supervised release for making false statements to a federal grand jury.  The statements were regarding an incident that happened in the spring of 2014, when another BPD officer ran over an arrestee in Baltimore City.  That officer, who was not named in the U.S. Attorney’s press release, apparently called the former detective’s sergeant to inform him of the car accident involving a suspect.  The sergeant then asked the former detective if he had a BB gun that they could use to plant at the scene, in an ill-conceived effort to provide justification for suspect being hit with a vehicle.  The former detective told his sergeant that he did not own a BB gun, but then called his partner, who did own a BB gun.  The sergeant and former detective then drove to the partner’s home to retrieve the BB gun and then went back to the scene of the auto accident, where the sergeant planted the gun.  The former detective apparently stayed by the car and did not assist in planting the BB gun at the scene.

The suspect who was run over by the officer’s car was arrested that night and charged with numerous drug crimes in addition to discharging a BB gun, which we now know was completely fabricated.  The suspect was held in custody for several days, and prosecutors eventually dismissed all charges about 10 months later.  The officer who ran the suspect over was indicted with several other Baltimore Police officers who were members of the notorious Gun Trace Task Force or GTTF.  The incident regarding the planted BB gun came up in one of the federal GTTF investigations, and the former detective was subpoenaed to provide his testimony on what happened.  The former detective told the grand jury that his sergeant requested that he call his partner to inquire about the BB gun, but the partner said he did not have one.  The detective then insinuated that while at the scene of the accident the sergeant went to the trunk of his vehicle to retrieve an unknown object.

Many of the former GTTF officers provided substantial assistance to the government in consideration for lighter sentences, and information on what actually transpired the night of the accident appears to have come from one of those proffer sessions.  Federal law enforcement learned that the detective and his sergeant arranged a secret meeting by communicating on their wives’ cell phones.  They actually met in a swimming pool to assure that neither was wearing a wire, a scene right out of the movie Traffic.  At the secret meeting both officers discussed their concerns over the GTTF indictments, and then the sergeant apparently told the former detective to lie about why they went back to the scene of the accident.  The sergeant told the detective to tell federal authorities that the sergeant retrieved the BB gun himself and that the former detective had played no part in obtaining it.  Unfortunately for the detective, federal authorities were able to prove that these statements were made with the intent to deceive the grand jury, and a stiff sentence followed from this poor decision.

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mail-truck-3248139_1280-300x200Montgomery County Police have charged a 32-year old mail carrier with multiple counts of theft for stealing numerous pieces of mail including a package containing rare coins worth close to $3,000.  The Greenbelt man has likely worked his last shift as a federal employee after allegedly confessing to the crime.  In addition to the confession, U.S. Postal Police Agents searched the defendant’s home and found other pieces of stolen mail from his delivery route in Silver Spring.  The mail carrier now faces six charges in the Montgomery County District Court, including two felonies for theft over $1,500 but less than $25,000.  He is also charged with theft scheme, and conspiracy to commit theft over $1,500, for allegedly working with another person to sell the stolen goods.  Trial is currently set for February 25, 2020 in the Silver Spring courthouse.  Online court records show the man is represented by the Public Defender, though his income as a federal employee may bar their continued representation.

Like many theft defendants, the mail carrier may have sealed fate by trying to flip the stolen coins for cash too soon, and in the same general location as the theft.  It seems as if the defendant conspired with another person to sell the goods to a coin shop in downtown Silver Spring, in an effort to conceal his own identity.  Unbeknownst to the co-conspirator, the coin shop, and other coin shops in the area, had already been tipped off about the possibility of these specific rare coins potentially being stolen.  An email was apparently circulated to pawn shops in the region.  The Silver Spring coin shop refused to engage in a transaction, and contacted law enforcement to inform them of the development.  The investigation led officers to the mail carrier in Greenbelt, and upon being questioned he apparently admitted to everything.

The mail carrier likely does not have a criminal record, as the requirements to work for the USPS include strict background checks.  The strict requirements are consistent with the mail carrier’s important responsibility of safeguarding private and potentially valuable pieces of mail.  In an age where we are shipping more things of value than ever before, USPS mail carriers have remained reliable and trustworthy.  By far the main concern with shipping packages in modern times is porch piracy, or the act of stealing delivered packages off a person’s property.  Having a mail carrier actually steal your mail is the last thing we expect or can imagine, so an incident like this is definitely disconcerting.

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handgun-231699_640-300x169The Maryland Senate and the House of Delegates recently cross-filled the Violent Firearms Offenders Act, and it is almost certain that a large portion of the bill will become law in October.  The bill aims to toughen penalties for certain firearms offenses that were seen as too lenient in light of escalating gun violence in Baltimore City and across Maryland.  The bill is part of a package of violence prevention initiatives that the governor announced at a press conference last month in Baltimore, which also includes increased penalties for witness intimidation and measures to track the sentencing records of judges in violent offenses.

The Violent Firearms Offenders Act begins by introducing a provision that adds possession or use of a firearm to the list of non-technical probation violations.  Normally a person who is on probation would be charged with a crime for possession or use of a firearm, and thus a rule 4 violation, so the issue would be moot.  But this provision gives the state an easier path to prove a non-technical violation if criminal charges are not filed, dismissed or placed on STET.  If the state shows the defendant possessed a firearm at any point while on probation the defendant could be found in violation and face the full backup time.  The bill also includes a section that reclassifies the crime of using a firearm in the commission of a crime of violence from a misdemeanor to a felony.  Once again, this is usually not a major issue because the underlying charge will undoubtedly be a felony.  On the other hand, it never made sense for an offense with a five-year minimum mandatory penalty like use of a firearm in violent crime to be classified as a misdemeanor, so there is no major argument against the change.  This section also adds a ten-year mandatory penalty for anyone convicted of using a firearm in a crime of violence for a second or subsequent time, which shall run consecutive to the sentence for the underlying crime.  Mandatory minimum sentences may not be suspended, and the defendant is never eligible for parole.

Perhaps the most impactful change in the Violent Offender Firearm Act is the new provision that adds a mandatory minimum jail sentence for the crime of theft of a firearm.  Theft of a firearm is currently part of the general theft laws, and the penalty is dependent on the value of the firearm.  Since most guns have a value of less than $1,500, theft of a firearm is usually treated as a misdemeanor with an 18-month maximum penalty.  If this bill passes, and we believe it will, come October anyone who is convicted of stealing a firearm (including an antique firearm or replica), faces a felony conviction with a 2-year minimum mandatory penalty.  This two-year minimum mandatory penalty is a new sentencing provision in Maryland, and is not applicable to other criminal statutes.  The law does specify that any defendant convicted faces the mandatory two-year sentence, so the issue of whether a defendant is eligible or probation before judgment may have to be addressed at some point.  Currently there is a 30-day minimum mandatory penalty for wear, carry or transportation of a handgun in Maryland, but it can be avoided if the lawyer argues for, and the judge grants PBJ.  The same is true for the 60-day minimum sentence for carrying a loaded handgun.  Lawmakers may choose to exclude theft of a handgun from 6-220, which governs when a judge can grant probation before judgment.  In Maryland a defendant who is sentenced to a mandatory term of incarceration may serve the time on house arrest, though house arrest sentences rarely extend beyond one year.  It will be interesting to see if 2-year house arrests sentences start becoming the norm, as theft of a firearm is not a violent offense and many defendants will be first time offenders.  Judges should hesitate sending a first-time non-violent offender to prison for two years.

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police-224426_640-300x189This past Friday night a Baltimore Police sergeant was conducting a routine check on a local business when a suspect allegedly became irate and spat in the officer’s face.  A struggle ensued after the officer attempted to arrest the suspect, and both men ended up wresting on the sidewalk.  The incident attracted a crowd of bystanders, and at least three of those bystanders were seen on cell phone video kicking the officer during the struggle.  On Monday, law enforcement reported that two men and one male juvenile have been arrested for their actions toward the police sergeant.  The two male defendants are both under the age of 24, with one hailing from Dundalk, and the other from Windsor Mill.  No identifying information about the juvenile has been released, except that he is 17.  The two men have been charged with assault on a police officer, which is a felony under Maryland law.  Assault on a police officer, firefighter or any other first responder carries the same 10-year maximum penalty as 2nd degree misdemeanor assault, but scores higher on the sentencing guidelines.  The two men were also charged with interfering arrest, which is a 3-year misdemeanor.  Interfering arrest is the listed under the same statue as resisting arrest, and both carry the same penalties.

The blog will continue to follow the prosecutions of the two men who were charged in the highly publicized case.  Both the mayor of Baltimore and the Maryland governor have already weighed in, calling the incident disgusting and appalling.  This means there will be increased pressure on the State’s Attorney’s Office to assure both men are punished.  The police officer did not appear to suffer any serious injuries from the assault, as the majority of kicks were focused on the officer’s buttocks.  Still, the case will be under a microscope and the chances are high that the men will not be treated the same as defendants in a non-publicized case.  The hope is always that the judge who presides over the case will not bow to any outside pressures and judge the case entirely on the facts presented at trial or sentencing.

In addition to the incident and the subsequent arrests three days later, the other headline surrounding the video recorded melee was the public sparring between the police union and the mayor of Baltimore.  The police union released a statement basically calling out the city’s leadership for its inability to establish any type of plan or direction to reduce the rising crime rate.  The union’s press release argued that the public will continue to disrespect city police and the crime rate will not go down until new leadership is elected.  In no uncertain terms the powerful police union basically said the current administration is unfit to serve the city’s needs.  The mayor’s office responded that the union leadership should spend more time out on the streets of Baltimore, which is not really a logical response.  The mayor’s office would be better served avoiding public bickering and focusing instead on making Baltimore a better and safer city.

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cannabis-1418332__480-261x300Fruitland is a small Eastern Shore city located off of Route 13, just south of Salisbury and a few miles north of Princess Anne.  As an incorporated municipality, Fruitland maintains a city council that can enact legislation, and a police department to enforce its laws.  With a population of around five thousand residents though, it’s no surprise that major news headlines do not appear when Fruitland passes new laws.  Last month, Fruitland lawmakers passed an ordinance making it a crime to smoke marijuana in public.  There was little fanfare surrounding the passage of this law despite the fact that almost everything cannabis makes it to the various online news site.  Last month there wasn’t a peep about the Fruitland law anywhere on the internets.  But other local government agencies were paying attention, and now Wicomico County officials have proposed the same type of legislation to their respective lawmakers in the county council.

The State’s Attorney’s Office and the Sheriff of Wicomico County have asked the council to consider sprucing up the county’s marijuana laws in order to give police arresting authority for public marijuana consumption.  In a time where marijuana laws are becoming more lenient some jurisdictions are pushing for the opposite.  As a criminal defense lawyer Blog we are almost always on the opposite side of law enforcement when it comes to reforming drug laws.  Public consumption of marijuana though is a complicated issue, and it’s hard to disregard either side of the argument.  For starters, nobody should ever be subject to criminal prosecution and the potential for a jail sentence for smoking marijuana.  At the same time, citizens have a right to object to being exposed to marijuana use when they are in public, and law enforcement has a right to speak for the public on this.

We have long since believed that marijuana should be treated the same as alcohol, as both are recreational drugs that people enjoy, and both cause impairment.  The purchase and sale of both should be legal, taxed and regulated, and the public consumption of both should be unlawful but not punishable by incarceration.  Public consumption of alcohol is a civil infraction under Maryland law, which is punishable by a fine, but certain municipalities have criminalized this offense.  When examining the utility of a stricter statute for public consumption of marijuana we can easily look to similar alcohol ordinances for comparison.

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1380109_the_maryland_state_house-300x229The 2020 Maryland legislative session is set to kick off this week and there are a host of criminal law issues that will be debated in Annapolis.  While it’s too early to tell exactly the kind of bills that may cross the governor’s desk in April, it’s never too early to speculate what will become a hot topic.  One thing we can almost guarantee is that there will be serious debate about whether to legalize recreational marijuana, but it will not actually happen.  Medical marijuana took years to develop, and even when it passed it was a shell of the flourishing program that exists today.  Recreational marijuana will likely follow the same arduous course toward implementation, as it does not appear that lawmakers are in any type of hurry.

With respect to criminal law, there are definitely more pressing issues that will be debated in the next couple of months.  We expect to see numerous bills related to Maryland gun laws, with some directly targeted at reducing the critical violent crime epidemic in Baltimore City.  The governor has expressed a great deal of frustration over the gun violence in Baltimore and has already dedicated millions of taxpayer dollars to multi agency crime suppression initiatives.  But the fight will not stop at money and manpower, as we expect stricter gun legislation to be up for debate this year.  The Maryland gun laws are already tough, but generally speaking it is the law-abiding citizens that are most impacted by the state’s strict firearm regulations.  New laws increasing the minimum mandatory penalty for certain gun crimes may show up in Annapolis, as well as bills requiring background checks for rifle and shotguns purchases.  Rifle and shotgun buyers are currently only required to fill out the federally mandated ATF weapons purchase application, and are not required to submit to fingerprinting and background checks.  It is unclear whether this requirement will directly correlate to crime reduction though, as the large majority of gun violence involves the use of handguns.

There has been a persistent push to liberalize the concealed carry permit policy in Maryland, and 2020 may be the year where process is scrutinized.  A law-abiding resident currently has to prove to state authorities that he or she has a good and substantial reason for seeking a concealed carry permit, which unequivocally reduces the number of citizens with permits.  The requirements in neighboring states like West Virginia and Virginia are far more liberal, and there is zero evidence that this has contributed to increased incidents involving handgun use.  On the contrary, it is widely argued that more law-abiding citizens with concealed carry permits could actually lower the crime rate, and potentially limit the severity of public incidents involving weapon violence.

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concertina-wire-1031773_960_720-200x300A father and daughter recently pled guilty to federal racketeering charges stemming from an ongoing prison corruption scheme that took place back in the summer of 2017.  According to federal prosecutors a 28-year old woman and her 55-year old father were recruited by a family member who was serving a Maryland state prison sentence to smuggle contraband into an Anne Arundel County correctional facility.  The medium security prison going by the name of MCIJ is located in the Jessup area on the border of Anne Arundel and Howard Counties, and houses about 1,100 male inmates.  One inmate happened to be a 29-year old who used his father and sister to obtain and package contraband, bribe correctional officers and manage the proceeds of the illegal contraband trade within the prison.  The 29-year old inmate also pled guilty for his involvement in the conspiracy and previously admitted that he was the leader.

The evidence mentioned in plea hearing consisted of recorded jailhouse phone calls between the inmate and his family members discussing meetings with corrupt prison employees.  The calls also contained conversations with other co-conspirators where money was exchanged in order to smuggle various controlled substances into the facility.  The controlled substances included Percocet and Ecstasy, which can either come in pill or powder form and easily be concealed inside clothing or on the person.  Suboxone was also mentioned as one of the controlled substances, which typically is manufactured on small sheets of paper that can be easily concealed.  Recent Maryland laws have restricted the types of books that are allowed to pass through prison security due to the ease that these substances can be transported on paper.  Tobacco and synthetic marijuana were other forms of contraband that were smuggled into the jail by the co-conspirators.  These items have little value on the street, but inside a secure prison facility can be worth 5 to 10 times their street value.

Both defendants are scheduled for sentencing hearings in March, while 29-year old ring leader has yet to be given a sentencing date.  Whether the sister or the father will be sentenced to prison time themselves depends on a variety of factors including their specific involvement in the scheme, how cooperative they were with law enforcement and whether either has a prior criminal record.  The judge may examine how much each of the individual defendants actually profited off the scheme, as defense lawyers will likely argue the defendants never would have committed the criminal acts absent immense pressure from the incarcerated family member.  Other factors that may be relevant include the length of the conspiracy and how many times, if ever, either defendants tried to end involvement with the scheme.

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cellular-tower-28883_640-255x300The U.S. Attorney’s Office for the District of Maryland recently announced indictments in two cases against men who ran lucrative businesses in and around Maryland.  Both men now face federal charges for wire fraud, which has become one of the main catch-all tools for federal prosecutors in cases involving fraudulent activity.  The first indictment was announced on December 19, and involved a 45-year old Carroll County man who now faces up to 20 years in federal prison for multiple felony charges.  This defendant is accused of defrauding the government out of up to $2 million through his Frederick County based construction business.  The company was tasked with providing repair and maintenance services to several Maryland USPS facilities including local Post Offices.  The indictment alleges that the defendant’s company under the direction of the defendant systematically overbilled the federal government for these services, and concealed its use of subcontractors to carry out the scheme.  In total the businessman is facing 30 counts of wire fraud, and will face the charges in the Baltimore Federal Courthouse downtown. The indictment was announced by the U.S. Attorney’s Office and the U.S. Postal Service Office of the Inspector General.  An initial appearance has been not yet been scheduled, and the case will likely take several months to play out.

In a separate case the U.S. Attorney’s Office announced that a Virginia businessman has been indicted for wire fraud related to a scheme to defraud the U.S. Navy and the State Department by unlawfully selling body armor and other protective gear manufactured in China.  The indictment alleges that the businessman accepted contracts to deliver tactical helmets to the Navy and while working with a Navy contract specialist to fulfil the contract fraudulently stated the helmets were being manufactured in Southern Virginia.  The government is alleging the helmets were actually manufactured in China, which is not an approved country under the TAA or Trade Agreements Act.  Any defense equipment manufactured in China must be separately identified and approved before it can be involved in a business transaction with the government.  The government allegedly located a payment made to a Chinese company that manufactures the same exact helmets the business had agreed to sell to the Navy.  A United States Magistrate Judge agreed to release man, who is still listed as the founder and CEO of the company, on home detention and a $75,000 bail.  This case will proceed at the Greenbelt Federal Courthouse, which handles all cases arising out of the Southern Maryland.

Wire fraud under 18 U.S. Code 1343 is one of the most powerful charging tools utilized by federal prosecutors in part because of its broad definition.  The government need only prove that the defendant used an interstate telephone call or electronic communication to further an unlawful scheme.  Almost all business these days is conducted using some sort of electronic communication, and it’s hard to find a business that operates exclusively in one state.  This makes establishing federal jurisdiction a foregone conclusion if investigators catch wind of any business operating on the wrong side of the law.   The wire fraud statute also carries a harsh 20-year maximum penalty, that carries heavy weight as a bargaining chip in order to induce cooperation or a plea.

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