Maryland Court Finds That Reduced Penalties in Effect at Time of Trial, Rather Than Time of Offense, Should Be Applied to Criminal Defendant’s Case

1390182_barbed_wireThe Maryland Court of Appeal recently considered a case, Waker v. State, which should be important to all criminal defendants. Prior to a 2009 amendment, a Maryland theft statute provided that theft of something worth not more than $500 was a misdemeanor not to be punished by more than 18 months in prison. If the stolen item was worth more than $500 it would be regarded as a felony with a higher prison sentence.

In 2009, the Maryland General Assembly amended the statute so that the theft of property valuing less than $1,000 was a misdemeanor, meaning that it could be punished by imprisonment of no more than 18 months. The theft statute was also amended to provide that theft of property worth more than $1000 but less than $10,000 is a felony. This law was signed by the Governor on May 19, 2009, and became effective October 1 of the same year.

In this case, Calvin Waker bought some items at Walmart using a fraudulent credit card in March 2009. He was caught and charged with stealing property valued at $615 and was set to go to trial in March 2009. After a postponement, his trial was held in December of 2009 instead. Waker waived his right to a jury trial and was tried on an “agreed not guilty statement of facts.” He was found guilty and sentenced to 10 years of imprisonment. At the time of the theft, Waker was subject to the earlier statute which said that anybody convicted of property or services valued at $500 or more is guilty of a felony, and he was sentenced accordingly.

Waker asked the Maryland Court of Appeals to decide which penalty provisions should have been applied to his sentencing—the earlier theft statute or the version that included the 2009 amendments. In other words, he asked whether he was subject to the harsher penalty in place at the time of the offense, or the reduced penalty in effect at the time of trial. He argued that the trial court should have applied the statute as it existed at the time of his actual trial, which would have meant a reduced sentence for him.

Meanwhile, the state asked the appellate court whether Waker failed to preserve this appellate claim by not stating a claim of sentence illegality at trial. It also argued that the law at the time of the offense was the one that should be applied under a “general saving clause” in the statute. That clause stated, among other things, that amendments did not change any criminal penalty incurred under the statute unless the amendment expressly provided for it.

The appellate court ruled against the state, holding that the issue of sentence illegality had been preserved. It also ruled that the lower court’s sentence was illegal. For its opinion, the appellate court relied on another case, State v. Johnson. In that case, a defendant was convicted for violating probation. He was sentenced according to the rules of the probation revocation law that was in effect during the trial. The Johnson court found that the general saving statute preserved the penalties that existed under the prior law because that standard had already been imposed at trial. However, the penalties could not later be modified by the new law in effect at the time of the appeal.

In this case, the statutory amendment was in effect in October, before Walker was tried or sentenced in December. The Court of Appeals reasoned that the general saving clause could only be applied to preserve Waker’s criminal liability and sentence under the law as it existed in December 2009.  As such, the lighter penalties in effect under the amended statute should have been applied to Waker’s case.

Criminal cases can range from matters of life and death to minor misdemeanor charges. However, as this post shows, technical issues can have grave importance. Therefore, if you are facing criminal charges, you should make sure you hire a qualified and knowledgeable criminal law attorney. Contact lawyer Anthony Fatemi and his legal team for a legal consultation. They have years of experience defending clients in Maryland facing criminal charges involving drugs, handguns, domestic violence, DWI, sex offenses, felony, theft, and assault.

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