The Weekly Writ: Maryland Legal News You Can Use for December 14, 2020

Today on December 14, 2020, read about:

Of course, if these or any other legal questions are impacting you and your family, then don't hesitate to reach out to JC Law for your free initial consultation with one of our expert domestic, criminal, or civil litigation attorneys.

 

Former Operations Official Pleads the 5th ... 150+ Times

Original Story

What's Going On:

You may remember a small summer scandal surrounding Maryland Governor Larry Hogan's would-be chief of staff, Roy McGrath. For those who need a refresher:

  • The Baltimore Sun broke a story in June about a six-figure severance payment from the Maryland Environmental Service, the state agency McGrath led at the time.
  • The MES board of directors said that McGrath said that Gov. Hogan knew and approved of the payment.
  • Gov. Hogan claims he knew nothing of it until the Sun story.
  • McGrath says that everything is above board.

Lots of fingerpointing here.

Anyway, fast-forward six months, and McGrath's former employee and director of operations Matthew Sherring is subpoenaed to answer questions regarding McGrath's severance and his own subsidized business trips while working for the MES.

Sherring answered questions for three hours last week before the Joint Committee on Fair Practices and State Personnel Oversight -- or, at least he was asked them.

Sherring's only answer for more than 150 questions was:

"On the advice of counsel and pursuant to my constitutional rights, I respectfully decline to answer that question."

State Delegate Erek Barron, one of two co-chairs, told media that "Mr. Sherring and Mr. McGrath took great advantage of their state employment, perhaps wasteful and fraudulent advantage of their state employment."

McGrath himself will face the committee's questions later this week, as he, too, has been subpoenaed as part of their investigation.

Why This Matters To You:

Sure, it's another story of possible wasteful, fraudulent, and/or illegal government spending in Maryland, and of everyone pointing fingers at everyone else to shift blame anywhere but themselves.

However, Sherring's testimony -- or lack thereof -- offers a powerful example for others who may be subpoenaed or otherwise questioned by law enforcement.

According to the Fifth Amendment of the Constitution:

No person shall be [...] compelled in any criminal case to be a witness against himself.

Basically? You aren't legally required to answer questions in a criminal case that may cause you to give testimony that might hurt you.

So, no matter what the other side tells you -- or what the public may think of such testimony -- "pleading the fifth" is a solid strategy that should not legally hurt your case.

More About Maryland & Federal Fraud Charges

 

Covid-19 Pandemic Reaches New Highs -- And Maryland Localities Push New Restrictions

Original Story

What's Going On:

Welcome, new Baltimore Mayor Jack Young -- and the new coronavirus restrictions he enacted on Day One of his time in office.

In response to the winter wave of Covid-19, which has killed almost 5,000 Marylanders as of this writing, Mayor Scott has enacted some of the harshest restrictions within Baltimore city limits since the actual lockdown this past spring effective last Friday at 5 PM, including:

  • Restaurants may not directly serve any patrons -- inside or out -- but may still offer takeout and delivery;
  • Retail and religious facilities find their capacity capped at 25%; and
  • Outdoor rec facilities may operate at 25% capacity, but anything indoors is closed.
Mayor Scott acknowledged that the restrictions wouldn't be fun, pretty, or otherwise welcomed by city residents and businesses, but "that's how serious this is," adding:

That hookah bar can wait. That brunch can wait. We have to keep our family and our people that we love alive.

Following his lead, Anne Arundel County Executive Steuart Pittman likewise restricted county residents, though religious facilities may operate at 33% capacity and the restrictions take effect this Wednesday (December 16) to give restaurants and other businesses time to adjust.

Why This Matters To You:

Gov. Hogan has been reluctant to issue additional restrictions that may lockdown our businesses again, but his subordinates at the county level -- especially along the 95-corridor -- seem to feel no such compunction.

Plus, these restrictions are not "strong suggestions" or any other sort of recommendation. These local officials are making orders that are legally enforceable with fines and jail time.

Therefore, every Marylander must pay close attention to their local announcements, as well as any future press conferences held by the governor, to see if and when more Covid-19 related restrictions will apply to them.

Stay safe, everyone.

More About Maryland Court System Matters

 

Unemployment Fraud Attempted Using State Officials' Names -- Including Gov. Hogan's

Original Story

What's Going On:

Well, the governor is definitely not unemployed -- which may have tipped off the labor department on fraudulent unemployment claims.

According to Maryland State Police and the U.S. Department of Labor's Office of the Inspector General, some of the fake unemployment petitions were filed under the names of top Maryland state officials, including:

  • Governor Larry Hogan
  • Lt. Governor Boyd Rutherford
  • Labor Secretary Tiffany Robinson

(Depending on the party of the would-be fraudsters, perhaps it was wishful thinking on their part that political rivals would be out of office? We're kidding.)

This is the latest discovery in the massive fraud campaign executed this summer in the wake of record unemployment claims in Maryland and around the country.

While Marylanders are angry at the slow speed at which the department is dispersing aid to those impacted by Covid-19, the governor's office insists that the delay is due to an unforeseeable backlog and these fake unemployment claims. After all, the office claims that 85% of the more than 214,000 claims flagged by the DoL have proven fraudulent.

Why This Matters To You:

Hopefully, this story was a welcome bit of gallows humor for you, even if you're one of the thousands of Marylanders who have yet to see desperately needed unemployment checks.

But, it gives us an opportunity to discuss why the fake unemployment claims are legally considered "fraud" and not something else, like theft.

Fraud, as we define elsewhere on our site, is charged when law enforcement believes that "the defendant intended to take something from another person through deceit."

In plain terms, you can think of fraud as stealing by tricking someone.

In this example, the people making fake unemployment claims were trying to trick the Department of Labor into thinking they deserved money from the unemployment insurance pot when they didn't, by saying they were people they really weren't.

If and when law enforcement brings charges against those it claims committed this type of fraud, fraud convictions in federal court can result in decades in prison and hundreds of thousands in fines.

If prosecutors specifically charge wire fraud -- that is, fraud where the money passes electronically, as it does for unemployment disbursement -- then those convicted face up to 20 years in federal prison and a possible $250,000 fine... for each individual count of fraud.

Yeah. The government does not mess around with these types of charges. Hopefully, those charged won't mess around with their defense team, either.

More About Maryland & Federal Fraud Charges

 

Possible Changes to Maryland Domestic Violence and Custody Proceedings?

Original Story

What's Going On:

Back in 2019, Maryland's General Assembly created a "workgroup" with the extremely catchy name of "The Workgroup to Study Child Custody Proceedings Involving Child Abuse or Domestic Violence Allegations."

This group was tasked to examine previous guidelines involving children in domestic cases such as custody disputes or divorce, and find ways to legislate better outcomes for the children and all the families involved.

The workgroup recently released their suggestions, which include:

  • Actually outlining what "in the best interest of children" means for consistent and safe rulings between various family courts throughout the state;
  • Legally defining "domestic violence" and the various types of abuse against children, to better standardize approaches during domestic cases -- right now, it's a hodgepodge of statutes and laws that kind of apply and sort of don't, depending on the situation;
  • Prevent judges from considering child abuse reports from a single parent to avoid possible attempts to sabotage rulings on visitation, custody, etc.;
  • Training judges and relevant court employees in these types of family law cases -- and then only assigning cases involving possible domestic violence to trained personnel; and
  • Making a legal "presumption" that giving custody to a parent who has previously engaged in forms of domestic violence or abuse is not in that child's best interest, making it harder for previous abusers to get custody of the impacted children.

Maryland legislators will consider the report's proposed changes when the 2021 session starts in January.

Why This Matters To You:

At some point in your life, you may have wanted to throw a book at a wall if you heard the phrase, "In the child's best interest" one more time.

Maybe that's just us, though, since we're in and out of family court all day long.

Or maybe, it's just true for those parents trapped in a family law system that doesn't seem to define so many of the terms the opposing party likes to throw around to get whatever they want, and the children are stuck in the middle.

Because you know when your son isn't acting like he usually does, or that your daughter's insistence that you're the "mean" parent isn't from them, but from your ex.

And, that type of abuse -- that parental alienation -- can be so hard to prove in a legal system that doesn't officially recognize or codify that type of abuse into its laws.

Very few people win, with the way the law is currently constructed.

The accuser, who thinks their kids are in danger and can't fix it, doesn't win, even if they ultimately gain custody. Their children were hurt and their hands were tied.

Neither does the accused win, who is effectively judged guilty on the word of a single aggrieved party.

And, the children involved certainly don't win, as opposing parties duke it out to prove that only their plan is in the "child's best interest" before a third-party judge with just the evidence before them.

In the end, everyone should want any involved children to be safe, happy, and whole.

And, if these recommendations establish a true foundational baseline from which all parties can play -- without possible room for confusion that may hurt families -- then we're all for it.

More About Abuse Charges In Maryland

 

No Personal Data Stolen In BCPS -- But Officials Stay Mum

Original Story

What's Going On:

Baltimore County Public School officials held a press conference last week to discuss the Thanksgiving cyberattack that shut down even the semblance of school for several days.

However, they were oddly quiet and reluctant to talk to press about anything other than the seeming good news that no one's personal information was stolen... as far as they know.

According to BCPS officials, the attack simply locked users and school officials out of the accounts -- not actually infecting or otherwise ripping information out of the systems themselves.

The officials are apparently reluctant to discuss any details about the cyberattack due to federal and state investigations still underway.

Why This Matters To You:

Well, at least the kids are back in "class."

Regardless, this incident is an opportunity to discuss cyberattacks and other computer-related crimes.

If and when federal officials press charges against suspects -- and it will likely be federal, since the internet crosses state lines -- they will likely push more "traditional" federal charges such as blackmail, extortion, or even terrorism.

The "cyber" aspect of the cyberattack may offer prosecutors possible evidence, but perhaps not a unique charge.

That's because most computer-based crimes aren't technically unique criminal charges per se, but rather just modern execution of older illegal activity.

After all, theft is theft -- whether someone robs a physical bank vault for cash or swipes digital account information.

However, given the rise in cyberattacks like the BCPS shutdown and new vulnerabilities in a society forced to go online due to Covid-19, it wouldn't surprise us to see new legislation go forward at the state and federal levels to specifically address such attacks as new and unique crimes.

More On Cyberattacks & Computer Crime Charges

 

Hanover Man Charged With Sexual Solicitation of a Minor

Original Story

What's Going On:

The law enforcement drag net for possible child abusers and sex criminals caught another one -- this time, a 52-year-old Hanover resident.

According to Maryland State Police, a state trooper pretended to be a 14-year-old boy on a dating app, and was propositioned by the suspect.

They arranged to meet in Laurel and -- with help from the Maryland Child Exploitation Task Force -- arrested the suspect.

The defendant currently resides in Prince George's County Detention Center on one count of sexual solicitation of a minor, with no bail offered.

Why This Matters To You:

Interesting, how fast the media is to name and shame individuals charged -- but not convicted -- of terrible crimes.

Case in point: Regardless of whether the defendant is actually guilty of sexual solicitation, he'll need to hire an online reputation management firm to scrub his legal name out of every possible news article springing from this single arrest, even if he never makes Maryland's sex offender registry.

(Add expungement expenses to that, too, to clear the charge from public record.)

There is no public record of the conversations that occurred to prompt the arrest, either. So, how are we to know the defendant actually intended to follow through on any actions? Or, that the defendant knew that the fake "victim" was a minor?

For that matter, how do we know it was the defendant talking to the trooper at all? After all, the trooper disguised their identity.

Could someone with a vendetta have pretended to be the defendant in the chat... and then tricked the defendant into going to the meet up with the "minor"?

It's possible, but we don't know. We can't know, at least until the trial. And, it's the prosecution's job to prove their case, even as the public tries to find all the ways someone might or might not be guilty.

At JC Law, we truly believe in everyone's constitutional right to a fair trial, and innocence before guilt until proven beyond a shadow of a doubt in a court of law.

It's too bad the local media and the public at large don't seem to hold the same values.

More on Child-Related Sex Charges in Maryland

 

Appellate Court Orders New Trial for Convicted Baltimore Defendant

Original Story

What's Going On:

Okay, so we're geeking out a little bit over this particular case, but bear with us for a second:

Back in 2019, there was a technical case called Kazadi v. State before the Maryland Court of Appeals about a criminal conviction that happened decades before.

That case itself doesn't really matter, but what the appellate court ruled does.

Basically, the court ruled that since the defense's lawyer wasn't allowed to ask certain questions of potential jury members, the jury itself wasn't fair. That made the ruling unfair, the trial itself unfair, and so Kazadi would be allowed a retrial.

This case established a precedent for any number of criminal convictions that may also have suffered potentially biased juries if their defense counsel wasn't allowed to ask certain questions.

So fast-forward to today's case concerning the trial of a 26-year-old man in Baltimore. In 2018, he was convicted by a jury of second-degree murder, and so sentenced to 50 years in prison.

At the time, the defendant's lawyer wanted to ask potential jurors if they could honestly keep in mind that:

  1. They need to assume the defendant was innocent until truly proven guilty, and
  2. That the prosecutors needed to prove beyond a shadow of a doubt that the alleged charges happened.

At the time, the judge didn't allow the defense's lawyer to ask those questions, and so the jury selection proceeded without those answers.

Now, per the Kazadi v. State ruling, Maryland's Court of Appeals has ruled that the formerly-convicted defendant has the right to a new trial, since the jury was compromised.

Why This Matters To You:

Kazadi v. State, first of all, is a huge decision granting new tools to criminal defense teams' arsenals.

Defense lawyers are now allowed to ask potential juries in high-profile criminal cases if they can truly be unbiased.

And, if the jurors can't, then new ones can be selected.

If someone can't help but judge another guilty based on nothing but hear-say and not solid, legal evidence... well, then that person has no place on an American jury.

Kazadi v. State also offers a ray of hope to those convicted in jury trials that may or may not have been biased due to the inability to ask would-be jurors that simple question.

With the right appellate team, lawyers may be able to present solid appeals to the Maryland Court of Appeals to request new trials due to previous -- and now illegal -- bias.

We've said it before and we'll say it again: Every Marylander -- every American -- has a right to a fair trial.

This decision upholds that constitutional right on which our state and federal courts were founded.

More About the Appeal Process

 

Infamous "Star" Of Viral TikTok Video In ICE Custody

Original Story

What's Going On:

Have you seen the video running around on social media?

You know the one: The woman's dancing in front of her phone as part of a video trend to upload on social media app TikTok, and then -- out of nowhere -- a random man comes in the window?

Well, that man is now in U.S. Immigration and Custom Enforcement's custody for the stunt.

The 36-year-old resident of Hagerstown was arrested by ICE officials on "immigration violations." He'd previously been arrested for burglary and assault, but was out on bail at the time of the TikTok incident.

The victim was unhurt, though scared during the encounter.

Why This Matters To You:

First of all: If you're out on bail or on probation, then please don't break the terms of your release -- and especially don't break them only to commit another alleged crime.

You're likely to get a more severe punishment when you're hauled in front of law enforcement for a second time -- and now, with new and improved charges.

Secondly, we spotted some interesting details in this particular depiction of the incident: Namely, that the defendant appears to be mentally unwell, at least at a glance.

For example, the victim told news reporters that when the man entered her home through the patio window, he was smiling at her and "just muttering."

Later, she says the man himself asked her, "Are you my friend?"

When she replied that no, they weren't friends, he asked her again, "Are you sure?"

At first blush, this account seems to depict an unwell individual who needs psychological and medical treatment, not a prison cell.

But then, that's for his criminal defense team -- and a Maryland court -- to decide.

Learn More About Violating Bail & Probation