As an Aggressive and Experienced Baltimore Maryland Criminal Attorney, I have handled thousands of felony narcotics cases including Possession with the Intent to Distribute CDS and Distribution of CDS cases. These cases are serious matters in and of themselves with the potential of serious incarceration for a defendant. These cases become exponentially more serious when handguns and/or other firearms are seized along with the drugs.
Narcotics trafficking with firearms charges subject a defendant to an additional 20 year jail term on top of any sentence for the Felony CDS charges. More importantly, these charges carry a MANDATORY MINIMUM SENTENCE of five years in prison without the possibility of parole. In most instances, prosecutors reserve these charges for the worst and most violent offenders. Occasionally however, a prosecutor pursues these charges against defendants who don’t appear to fall into that category. I successfully defended a case in Baltimore County Circuit Court last week in which narcotics trafficking with firearms charges were pursued against 3 defendants who most certainly did not represent the worst of the worst violent drug dealers. At least that is my opinion. I found the decision to pursue a “five no parole count” against these defendants troubling to say the least, but I became even more troubled when I learned the details of how the police came to suspect these men as well as the nature and extent of the investigation into them. Here are the facts (as always I will be somewhat vague where necessary to protect my client’s anonymity and privacy).
My client, along with two other men, were renting a townhome together in Baltimore County Maryland. All three men are in their mid-thirties and none has a criminal history of any kind. Each is also at least a college grad and one is a physician currently employed at a hospital in Maryland. Hardly the dangerous street criminals who are usually the target of these types of prosecutions.
The police first came to suspect the clients of wrongdoing not because they were caught doing anything illegal or because of a citizen complaint or because an informant led the police to them. Instead, these men came to the police’s attention because one of them had purchased high intensity lighting equipment of the type used by marijuana growers. These men had never been caught smoking much less selling marijuana. There had never been a complaint about them from their neighbors or anything else that would alert the police to their “wrongdoing”. Instead the police are apparently monitoring private transactions of legal products between merchants and customers and then investigating those who purchase things that they find suspicious. Scary stuff right? BIG BROTHER is alive and well in 2012!
The police then set up and investigation into these men that lasted over 4 months!! This investigation included surveillance of their home on many occasions, digging through their trash cans in the middle of the night looking for contraband as well as other tactics to determine whether or not these men were selling or even smoking marijuana. In the end they hit “pay dirt” on only two of at least a half a dozen “trash pulls” and found a grand total of 6 “blunts” which are cigar butts with marijuana residue and a plastic bag with 2 stems and some residue in it. On cross-examination the detective acknowledged that the investigation into these men was “exhaustive” and agreed that they hadn’t found a “scintilla of evidence” that the men were selling marijuana. Yet, they continued to investigate them at great cost to the residents of Baltimore County. Is this how your want your tax dollars spent?
Based on this scant evidence the police secured a search and seizure warrant and set upon the clients home with more than a half a dozen police officers. Inside they found a marijuana grow operation in the basement with approximately 200 plants in various stages of maturity and roughly a quarter pound of cultivated marijuana. They also found 3 loaded weapons – a rifle, a shotgun and a handgun in the living room. These weapons were found loaded in cases but according to the police 2 of the cases were closed but not zipped up. And herein lays the rub.
Because these weapons were located in the living room and loaded the State took the position that they were “loaded and ready to be deployed” to protect a “drug organization or operation”. To be fair, I can see why on the surface this may have been a possible interpretation of the evidence but once you look beyond the surface it was clear, at least in my mind, the minds of my co-counsel and ultimately the mind of the judge, that this was simply not the case.
First of all these men were not drug dealers, they were heavy pot smokers and nothing more. As the lead detective honestly acknowledged on cross examination, there was simply zero evidence, beyond the number of plants recovered that is, to suggest anything other than that they were heavy pot smokers. The cultivated marijuana was not packaged for street level distribution. They found no large amounts of money or “owe sheets” or lists of customers. They also didn’t find any packaging equipment. In short, they didn’t find any of the evidence that prosecutors point to every single day in these types of cases to distinguish between users and distributers.
As far as the weapons were concerned, we presented uncontradicted evidence of the real reason why these men had these weapons; and it had nothing to do with the drugs. Approximately, 3 years prior to this case, two of the defendant’s had been the victims of a horrific home invasion robbery in which one of the defendant’s brothers was murdered and they barely escaped with their lives. This robbery/murder had occurred at the home of the defendant’s mother and was not in any way related to drugs. Needless to say they were profoundly traumatized by this incident and were terrified that the men, who did not wear masks and were therefore identifiable by the clients, might return to finish the job and eliminate witnesses. They legally purchased the weapons found in this case just 6 days after this incident. They took a weapons safety course and even filed transfer of ownership documents with the State Police when one defendant moved out of the house but wanted to leave 2 of the weapons with the other defendant. Again, actions hardly consistent with the State’s theory that they were dangerous gun toting drug dealers.
After months of negotiating, the State’s Attorney refused to drop the “five no parole count” so the case was set in for trial. We ended up selecting a judge trial (also called a court trial) as opposed to a jury trial, We did this primarily because jurors are not told about mandatory penalties such as the mandatory five no parole sentence associated with the trafficking with firearms charge. This is an incredibly unfair rule in my opinion that often leads to judges having to impose these harsh penalties in cases where it is not warranted. The case lasted 3 days and in the end the court found exactly as we had judged the evidence from the beginning. The clients were found not guilty of the firearms charges (the five no parole count) as well as possession with intent to distribute and were only convicted of growing and possessing marijuana. An excellent outcome to be sure but the clients as well as the tax payers of Baltimore County paid a much heavier price than was necessary for that outcome.