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Trial judges must always be neutral

gavel2It is not uncommon to see judges portrayed on television or in the movies as essentially taking over the trial and actively participating to help one side or the other. It is an important maxim in criminal law that an impartial judge is essential to a defendant receiving a fair trial. 

What may constitute a judge departing from that impartial role was explored by Maryland’s Court of Special Appeals in a recent opinion in a case called Brandon Payton v. State of Maryland. 

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Excessive force charges against cops

gavel2There has been much discussion in recent years about use of excessive force by police officers, in the performance of their often difficult duties. The Courts have made it clear that when making an arrest a police officer is entitled to take reasonable measures to make the arrest in a manner that protects both the public and the police. What evidence may be admissible in a case alleging that an officer acted unreasonably in using force while making an arrest was explored by Maryland’s Court of Special Appeals in a recent case called Wesley Cagle v. State of Maryland.

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A witness for now - pending charges

gavel2The Sixth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, as well as similar provisions in the Maryland Declaration of Rights, protect the right of an accused to confront witnesses against him. 

These protections allow for wide latitude on the part of a defendant’s attorney in cross-examining witnesses called by the prosecution. Maryland’s Court of Appeals last week addressed how to handle questioning of a witness who faces his own criminal charges, in a case called Manchame-Guerra v. State. 

The opinion by Chief Judge Barbera indicates that the defendant was charged with murder in a shooting death.

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Unprofessional conduct in prescriptions

gavel2We have all heard about, and too many have experienced, the effects of the opioid epidemic in the United States. One way to combat improper writing of prescriptions in Maryland is for the State Board of Physicians to seek sanctions against physicians for unprofessional conduct. This process was explored by a recent unreported opinion from Maryland’s intermediate appellate court in a case called Walter Kozachuk v. Maryland State Board of Physicians.
 
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Disclosing the identifying witnesses you say

gavel2It is a common to see in movies or television a dramatic scene where the prosecution suddenly calls to the stand the surprise witness who identifies the defendant as the killer. The Maryland Rules of Criminal Procedure require that prior to trial the prosecution must disclose “all relevant material or information regarding…pretrial identification of the defendant by a State’s witness.” How this rule works in practice was discussed by a divided Maryland Court of Appeals in a case called John W. Green III v. State.

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The battered spouse and the contract killer

gavel2 1 Whether battered spouse syndrome should be a defense in criminal cases has been a controversial issue for many years. Since 1991, a Maryland statute has made such evidence admissible to prove the defendant’s motive or state of mind at the time of the alleged crime. Whether this defense may be available even where the battered spouse hired someone to kill her husband was addressed by a divided Maryland Court of Appeals this week in a case called Karla Louise Porter v. State of Maryland.
Judge Adkins’ opinion for the 4-3 majority indicates a long history of physical and verbal abuse by the defendant’s husband toward her. The defendant testified at trial that eventually she concluded that she knew her husband was going to kill her and she wanted to kill him first. She approached several, eventually hiring someone to kill him at their place of business, with the defendant calling the police to make it sound like a robbery gone bad. She was arrested and charged with first degree murder. At trial, in addition to testifying to the history of abuse, the defendant called two experts who testified that she was suffering from battered woman syndrome including major depression and posttraumatic stress disorder.

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Gang membership and criminal sentencing

gavel2 1 The Trump Administration just recently announced that it was making a priority of prosecuting members of gangs that commit criminal acts, and in particular members of the gang known as MS-13. Maryland’s highest Court just last week addressed whether a sentencing Judge can consider evidence of the defendant’s membership in a gang, even where the underlying crime was not gang related. The case is called Oscar Cruz-Quintanilla v. State of Maryland.
Chief Judge Barbera wrote in the opinion that the defendant was indicted for various crimes related to a home robbery. A jury convicted him of reckless endangerment, wearing/carrying/transporting a handgun, and conspiracy to commit robbery.At sentencing, the prosecution offered for the first time evidence that the defendant had been a member of MS-13. The State called a police Sergeant who testified about and showed pictures of various tattoos on the defendant that showed he belonged to that gang.
The officer said the defendant was a documented gang member since at least 2004. He further testified that members of that gang have to demonstrate loyalty and a willingness to commit violent criminal acts, consistent with its motto translated as “kill, rape, control.”

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Courts rule when mental capacity diminishes

gavel2 1 Maryland criminal statutes protect persons with mental disabilities from sexual crimes. The Court of Appeals last week addressed what must be proven in a rape case to establish the mental condition of the victim in order to prove such a crime, in a case called Miguel Fuentes v. State of Maryland.
The Court’s majority opinion indicates that Fuentes was convicted by a jury of second degree rape and another sexual offense, arising from a sexual encounter he had with a 38 year old coworker at a hotel. The victim, who was deaf, testified through a sign language interpreter to the encounter with the defendant. Her mother testified that the victim was disabled and had attended a high school class for students with disabilities, but was able to work in housekeeping. After noticing a change in her daughter’s behavior, she later discovered she was pregnant and gave birth to a child whom DNA evidence showed had by fathered by the defendant.

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Let the punishment fit the plea

gavel2The majority of criminal cases that come to Court result in a plea agreement, rather than an actual trial. In Maryland it is not unusual for the prosecution and defense to agree on the parameters of the plea including potential punishment, and to ask the trial judge to agree to be bound by the terms of the agreement before sentencing. Maryland’s highest court recently addressed what happens when the sentence actually imposed is actually less severe than the minimum agreed to by the defense, in an opinion called Stephanie Smith v. State.
The Court of Appeals’ opinion indicates that the defendant was indicted for insurance fraud, and charged with theft in excess of $10,000. The defense attorney and prosecutor negotiated an agreement for the defendant to plead guilty, with an agreement that the defendant not be sentenced to more than 5 years of jail time with all that suspended except for a minimum of 30 to 90 days incarceration, followed by 5 years probation. The agreement was also that the defendant would pay restitution to the victim of over $47,000.

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And now the final protective order issue

gavel2 1 Maryland law provides for temporary protective or peace orders in an effort to prevent domestic violence, which may ultimately be followed by a request for a final protective order lasting for a year. The appellate courts have said that when fashioning relief in a domestic violence case, the court “is to do what is reasonably necessary no more and no less-to assure the safety and well-being of those entitled to relief.” How the Courts go about deciding such difficult cases is illustrated by a recent unreported opinion from Maryland’s Court of Special Appeals called Gali v. Gali.

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