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The Weekly Writ: Maryland Legal News You Can Use for November 30, 2020

Today on November 30, 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.

Yes, Garrett County Has to Wear Masks, Too.

Original Story

What's Going On:

Garrett County commissioners heard from Health Officer Bob Stephens last week as he pleaded with everyone attending from legislators to law enforcement to wear masks as both a public health measure and as a legal mandate from the governor's office.

The mask mandate -- which implements a possible $5,000 fine and up to a year in jail for those who break it -- is, in fact, a legal requirement of all Garrett County residents in public or enclosed spaces where social distancing cannot occur.

Governor Larry Hogan recently emphasized masks as an essential tool to keep Maryland's economy from backtracking to the second phase of the coronavirus recovery plan. Thus far, the state government has not mandated a new closure, but it reserves the right to do so if the state's positivity, hospitalizations, and death rates become unsustainable.

(Garrett County has the second-highest positivity rate in the state, second only to Allegany County.)

Why This Matters To You:

Yes, since Gov. Hogan put the mask mandate in an official executive order, wearing a mask is a legal requirement for every Marylander in public. Even if people personally think the pandemic is overblown or otherwise "fake news," the possible fine and jail time is definitely not fake.

And, as Gov. Hogan revealed in a press conference before Thanksgiving, he's dispatched state troopers and other state-level law enforcement to every county in Maryland -- including Garrett! -- to enforce pandemic-related orders for businesses and private citizens alike.

Please, if only to avoid easy legal bills: Wear the mask in public. We understand the inconvenience and the indignity, especially for independent-minded folks in less hard-hit areas, but it'd be a shame to spend money you don't have to in fines, bail, or other legal fees with the holidays coming up.

More About Maryland Court System Matters

Can Maryland Businesses Only Accept Credit Cards?

Original Story

What's Going On:

While the pandemic rages on, a shoe store in Westminster, Maryland, declined cash as an acceptable form of payment for a pair of shoes.

Technically, it was legal to do so: The U.S. Treasury Department rules state that customers are not "indebted" to stores, and so stores may determine what forms of legal tender they will accept.

On the local level, states may choose whether they can require business owners to accept cash payments. Maryland has no such law on the books.

Why This Matters To You:

Many businesses have made pandemic-related adjustments to their payment policies.

Some are out of necessity, such as the national coin shortage requiring businesses to only accept exact change or electronic payment methods.

Others are simply out of an abundance of caution. For example, while cash can be "dirty," no studies have shown that Covid-19 can actually be contracted from physical money. Therefore, requiring only contactless or paperless transactions seems to be more security theater, instead of actual pandemic mitigation.

While technically legal to only accept credit cards, Maryland businesses may want to approach such policies warily. After all, many disadvantaged communities lack access to easy credit or resources that make contactless transactions possible.

Such policies may pave the way for possible discrimination lawsuits of irate customers against business owners just trying to protect themselves and their employees during a pandemic.

(No such lawsuits have been filed as-yet, that we know of -- but it pays to think about these scenarios in advance!)

More About Maryland Business Legal Services

Convicted "Murderer" Fighting January 2021 Execution

Original Story

What's Going On:

A Laurel, Maryland man convicted of the kidnapping and murder of three women back in 1996 is scheduled to be executed on January 15, 2021 -- or is he?

As it turns out, the defendant only drove the car which held the abducted women. It was his co-conspirator who actually shot the victims. Yet, his co-conspirator was sentenced to life in prison without parole, while this defendant was sentenced to the death penalty.

As the defendant's current criminal defense attorney says, "It would be arbitrary and inequitable to punish [the defendant] more severely than the person who committed the murders."

Why This Matters To You:

Without access to the original trial documentation and evidence, it appears as though the defendant's attorney has a strong argument for possible clemency.

It seems to make very little logical sense for the person who actually committed the murder to receive a lighter sentence than the guy who just drove the car.

However, this case certainly illustrates the need to hire the right criminal defense attorney the first time.

Clearly, the sentence has been caught up in appeals for a while -- well over twenty years! -- but imagine how much less expensive it would've been for this particular defendant to have the right attorney arguing for the proper sentence back in the '90s, instead of today.

More About Maryland Criminal Sentences

Accidental Fraud in Baltimore County

Original Story

What's Going On:

Baltimore County accidentally paid at least 20 employees twice over: Once for their current salary, and a second time as a "pension" payment.

Such double payments are strictly against local and state law. However, this situation appears to be simple human error, not intentional fraud.

According to Inspector Kelly Madigan, there was a "lack of communication" between human resources and the government's retirement offices, resulting in confusing rule application.

The current error has since been corrected, though time will only tell if the two offices will continue to have similar miscommunications in the future.

As of writing, Baltimore County does not intend to seek reimbursement for the double payments from impacted employees.

Why This Matters To You:

Before we dive into why this matters to you personally, is anyone really surprised that such an error happened? At least this time, it was innocent mistakes, not actual fraud. (Maryland's track record doesn't really look great on that front -- "Healthy Holly," anyone?)

In the meantime, did you know that such mistakes happen all the time, even in the private sector? It's true! By law, it's possible for company to request reimbursement of the overages, too.

Under federal law, all employee wages are protected from any involuntary withholding of their payments, except by legally mandated garnishments. (Think taxes or child support payments.)

However, the same federal law stipulates that employers may make deductions in future paychecks if they made an accidental overpayment. The garnishment can be spread out over several paychecks, or made in one lump sum.

Employers still face legal risks in trying to garnish wages due to unemployment, however, especially if they try to correct a large error all at once.

For example, effectively withholding an entire paycheck to compensate for an accidental double-payment may lead to possible "constructive dismissal" claims, leaving the employer open to possible lawsuits and unemployment payouts.

More About Maryland & Federal Fraud Charges

Gov. Hogan Announces Additional Rental Payments, Protections

Original Story

What's Going On:

Last week, Gov. Larry Hogan announced an additional $19 million in eviction protection relief funding for Marylanders.

The state's Eviction Prevention Partnership Grants worth some $5 million is also headed Baltimore's way. Some 3,600 households -- including those in Baltimore County and the city proper -- will receive this additional relief from possible evictions.

Why This Matters To You:

Finally, funding to support legally enforceable mandates!

Imposing eviction moratoriums are hard on both the renters and the landlords.

First, the moratoriums don't include a forgiveness of the rent in its requirements. Therefore, renters can continue sheltering in place -- for now -- as their rent obligations continue to grow.

Second, the landlords can still charge rent, but the renters don't need to pay to keep living there anymore. However, many landlords still have mortgages to pay and other expenses related to home ownership, from upkeep to taxes.

Without any rent coming in and without the ability to find new renters who can pay, landlords can quickly find themselves between a rock and a hard place.

This funding provides relief to all parties involved, including the government. Fewer homeless evicted from their homes for the government to care for means lower burdens on taxpayers -- even with the large funding assistance program. The renters don't fall further behind, and landlords are saved from financial ruin.

It also puts less pressure on the courts, as fewer landlords should be seeking evictions and fighting it out legally with their former tenants.

More About Maryland Real Estate Matters

Will Symphony of Lights Happen in 2020? Courts Say Yes.

Original Story

What's Going On:

The Howard County Circuit Court ruled last week on a saga of a lawsuit started back in June between Columbia's "Symphony of Lights" drive-through holiday event organizers of the Downtown Columbia Arts and Culture Commission, the Inner Arbor Trust, and It's My Amphitheater Inc., and the Columbia Association.

(And no, for once, it's not due to Covid-19.)

Basically, the plaintiffs claim that the 2019 event broke the easement rights for the Merriweather Post Pavilion, also known as "Symphony Woods," for parking and other space-heavy issues. Many licenses and land-agreements were examined and poked by all parties involved.

In the end, since the event violated the easement rights last year, the Association wanted an "injunction" -- a court-ordered stop -- of this year's event.

On Wednesday's ruling, the Howard County Circuit Court declined to issue an injuction for the plaintiffs against the event. So, the "Symphony of Lights" will run through January 2nd, 2021 in its pandemic-proof carpool fashion, as previously scheduled.

The injuction request was just a first step in the legal wrangling, however. Whether the Symphony of Lights can continue in the space provided for next year remains to be seen.

Why This Matters To You:

Cases like this show just how touchy real estate law can get, especially if you proceed without a decent attorney to double- and triple-check your arrangements. Gentlemen's agreements and handshakes are hard to enforce without contracts that all parties understand.

The situation also demonstrates how long legal battles can become. After all, the Columbia Association filed for an injunction of the holiday event back in June -- just as a temporary measure while both parties duke out who is right about the easements in court!

That second court battle is just beginning, even while the Symphony of Lights continues for this season.

More About Civil Litigation in Maryland