The Weekly Writ: Maryland Legal News You Can Use for November 9, 2020

Welcome to the Weekly Writ, JC Law's new Monday morning round-up of all the Maryland legal news you can use for the week ahead.

Today on November 9, 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 trained domestic, criminal, or civil litigation attorneys.

New Maryland Covid-19 Restrictions and Preparations

What's Going On:

Per Governor Larry Hogan's November 5th press conference, several counties are seeing rises in hospitalizations and case rates.

The governor did not institute new state-wide legal requirements or restrictions, leaving it instead to local jurisdictions. He did not rule out a return to the harsher lockdowns of the spring -- "I have never hesitated to take the actions I believed were necessary to guide the state through these twin health and economic crises, and we will continue to do so" -- but has not yet deemed it necessary.

That said, Gov. Hogan has called on state and local law enforcement to do a better job of enforcing current Covid-19 related regulations, including:

  • Statewide mask mandates,
  • Occupancy restrictions, and
  • Social distancing guidelines.

Furthermore, several counties have moved to tighten local restrictions due to the recent spike, including:

  • Baltimore City, which has required bars without food to close altogether, indoor spaces to limit to 25% capacity once more, restaurants to close early, and renewal of mask policies both indoors and out;
  • Montgomery County, which is considering reimposing new restrictions to limit gatherings to 25 people and indoor venues such as theaters and churches to 25% capacity; and
  • Baltimore County, whose school district has pushed back the return of in-person classes from the previously scheduled November 16th due to the recent spike in cases.

Why This Matters to You:

Remember that Covid-19 restrictions are not suggestions -- they are mandated law that requires all citizens to obey, regardless of personal or political beliefs. Maryland law enforcement can and may back up each of these restrictions with arrests, citations, and fines.

As police and local responders answer the governor's call for increased monitoring and crackdowns on Covid-19 violations, we expect to see a rise in the number of local business owners and Maryland residents receiving citations or charges for violating current state laws regarding Covid-19.

More About Maryland Court System Matters

Rockville Police's "Operation Gas Can" Crackdown on Street Racing

What's Going On:

Local police units in Montgomery County partnered with the Maryland State Police to eliminate illegal street racing and what they call "excessive exhaust noise" throughout Rockville and Gaithersburg.

Their first joint venture, "Operation Gas Can," resulted in a large number of arrests and traffic stops, including:

  • 51 traffic stops and 3 arrests;
  • 40 citations;
  • 30 warnings; and
  • 8 "equipment repair orders" -- probably to "fix" those pesky loud exhausts.

Why This Matters to You:

Operation Gas Can only ran on October 30, 2020. However, the action and partnership indicates increased enforcement activity around Rockville and Gaithersburg in the near future.

And, the holidays are frequently a targeted time for traffic law enforcement, and this initial operation seems to be a sort of test run for a wider implementation beyond Montgomery County.

So, while you may want to avoid driving like you're on the NASCAR circuit in general, the next few months seem to be an especially bad time to test drive a future racing career -- particularly if you live in Montgomery County.

More About Maryland Traffic Matters

Harford County Judge Throws Out Challenge to Real Estate Development

What's Going On:

Harford County executives previously approved the development of 220 "heavily wooded" acres of private land into a business park for Abingdon. The Chesapeake Bay Foundation and four other entities sued the county, claiming that the county didn't actually do its due diligence on the environmental side before moving ahead with the development approvals.

(Specifically, the plaintiffs disliked the developer's proposal to cut down almost 50 "specimen" trees, which are very old trees that state and local laws encourage preserving wherever possible.)

On November 4th, Harford County Circuit Court Judge Diane Adkins-Tobin agreed to throw out this initial law suit against the developers, since she didn't believe judicial review applies to initial approvals of development.

Why This Matters to You:

On the one hand, it's a victory for Maryland real estate developers, pressed to construct more commercial space to grow the state's economy and to create affordable housing in desirable areas.

On the other hand, it's a temporary respite. Judge Adkins-Tobin did say that the group might refile their suit after the development plan is completely and officially approved by the county.

And, there is another suits in the wings -- this time, brought by environmentalists and locals suing the Department of the Environment for granting approval for construction over the various streams and "wetlands" on the site.

That trial date isn't set yet, but the situation may have greater repercussions for all developers across the state trying to both build and accommodate environmental laws.

More About Maryland Real Estate Matters

Maryland General Assembly to Limit Public Access Due to Pandemic

What's Going On:

On November 5th, Maryland House of Delegates Speaker sent out a memo outlining the state legislature's plan to limit traditional areas of public access for constituents, lobbyists and media representatives during the 90-day legislative session in 2021. Specifically:

  • No members of the public will be allowed in the State House at all, including the hearing rooms and personal offices.
  • The balconies normally open for public audiences will be limited to a few lawmakers and some journalists.
  • Speaking of which, journalists and other members of the news media will no longer be permitted on the House and Senate floors.
  • Anyone interested in observing the process must do so via live stream on the General Assembly's website.
  • Sessions will be limited to two hours without daily sessions scheduled for the first few weeks -- all designed to limit exposure to Covid-19.
  • Half of the House of Delegates will be losing their regular office spaces for the sake of social distancing.
  • House rules will change to allow for fewer attendees to move legislation forward.
  • Some plexiglass partitions will be set up in the senate.
  • State Senators will allow only limited numbers of video testimony to appear for consideration of legislation, both for and against.
  • The State House will let the public sign up for video testimony speaking slots the day before scheduled hearings.
  • Senators will be tested twice a week.
  • Masks are required of every person entering the State House.

Why This Matters to You:

2020 continues to be an exception to established norms on all ends of the spectrum. These limits on legislative discussion might severely hamper those who don't already have access to power.

As one lobbyist told the Baltimore Sun, "It's going to be hard for a regular person or a small business owner trying to get their case heard in Annapolis to talk to lawmakers and have some influence."

So, if you want to have a say in or otherwise witness Maryland's 2021 legislative session, then start planning now.

  • Talk to your local representatives this year, not next spring.
  • Constantly refresh the online General Assembly website and other outlets to know when hearings you care about occur -- and when you can sign up to speak for or against them.
  • Remember that these powers can fade after everything "gets back to normal," just so long as the public pays attention and demands that return.

Guilty Plea in Maryland Federal Court to Mail Fraud

What's Going On:

A 25-year-old Floridian pleaded guilty in Baltimore federal court last week to federal mail fraud conspiracy charges as part of a plea arrangement with federal prosecutors.

According to the plea deal, the defendant worked with a larger group of conspirators to call elderly victims and scam them out of almost $1 million from September 2018 through December 2019. The funds were directed to locations across the East Coast from Pennsylvania to Florida to disguise the crime.

One one occasion, an elderly gentlemen was defrauded out of $22,000, allegedly to bail out his grandson from a Baltimore jail and to retain an attorney against made-up federal drug charges.

Another victim lost $30,000 after hearing a similar story from the defendant's group about her grandson in a car accident with drugs found in the trunk.

In all, the group defrauded at least 28 victims out of at least $939,300.

Why This Matters to You:

It may take a while for the wheels of justice to turn, but eventually, folks can and do get charged with ongoing criminal activity.

For example, this fraud scheme started back in fall 2018, continued through at least December 2019, and the plea deal was only announced last week on November 4, 2020.

So, just because you or someone you know "got away with it" before, doesn't mean they should not prepare for getting caught with it again -- even years down the line.

The sentencing is scheduled for late March 2021, and we'll check back in then. Maximum federal sentencing for mail fraud conspiracy is 20 years, but the plea deal may have helped lower that possible prison sentence.

More About Maryland & Federal Fraud Charges

Maryland Voters Approve Sports Betting, Possibly Appearing Summer 2021

What's Going On:

On the general election docket for all Marylanders last week was Ballot Question 2 -- whether or not Maryland should legalize sports betting. The proceeds from Maryland state licensing and taxes would supplement Maryland's state education budget.

The initiative passed with overwhelming support from across the political spectrum, raising the prospect of active and legal sports betting in Maryland before next fall's Triple Crown race at Pimlico in Baltimore.

Why This Matters to You:

You may remember that back in 2008, Marylanders approved legalizing commercial gaming and slot machines as part of a state constitutional amendment.

Many remember the similar rationale for approving state gambling -- the funding of our state school system -- and the subsequent scandal when state lawmakers shifted previously allocated education funds to other projects once the gambling money started rolling in.

However, few may recall the stipulation that requires any future commercial gambling initiatives to be approved by referendum during general elections. Hence: Question 2 for sports betting on the 2020 general election ballot.

After the poor rollout of the last gambling initiative to fund public schools, it's worth keeping an eye on how sports betting will proceed -- and to expect lawsuits in state courts if it does not go exactly according to plan.

More About Maryland Gambling Matters

Maryland Comptroller Insists on Solutions for Unemployment Insurance "Traffic Jam"

What's Going On:

Loads of Marylanders have applied for unemployment benefits during the Covid-19 pandemic. However, the Department of Labor has been unable to keep up with demand for both initial applications and later appeals, leading to what Comptroller Peter Franchot called a "traffic jam" during November 4th's Board of Public Works meeting.

Part of the issue surrounds the department's legal requirement to investigate some 41,000 disputed and pending unemployment claims. When the applicant offers different information than their former employer, then the agency has a legal obligation from the federal government to investigate the discrepancy before dispersing or denying funds.

Why This Matters to You:

If you're one of the tens of thousands of Marylanders caught up in the unemployment backlog, then you've got a dog in this particular fight.

Comptroller Franchot has requested that the Secretary of Labor Tiffany Robinson come up with "creative relief" to alleviate the so-called traffic jam of applications without getting into federal legal trouble.

However, Secretary Robinson has insisted that such creative outlets may cause the state to run up against federal laws. She believes the additional staff and training, not creative legal propositions, will be have the desired effect, adding that she "hopes that you will see some relief in the coming weeks."

Secretary Robinson did say that the Department of Labor plans to "expand their fraud software" in the short term, hopefully solving many of these fraud investigations before they eat up too much time.

More About Maryland & Federal Fraud Charges