Maryland Court of Special Appeals Reinstates Criminal Conviction

In most criminal cases, the defendant will have opportunities throughout the proceeding to raise a number of different defenses. These defenses can serve to reduce the severity of the criminal charges or set forth a complete defense. Additionally, if a person is convicted of the charged crimes, he or she may challenge the decision on various grounds and through specific legal mechanisms. In order to challenge a conviction, the defendant must be able to set forth supporting information and evidence to satisfy the legal requirements. The best way to determine if you are eligible to challenge a conviction is to consult with an experienced Maryland criminal defense attorney as soon as possible.

Depending on the case, a defendant may bring something known as a “writ of error coram nobis,” which is a civil action, independent and separate from the underlying action from which it emanated. According to Maryland case law, this proceeding enables a “convicted person who is not incarcerated and not on parole or probation, who is suddenly faced with a significant collateral consequence of his or her conviction, [to] … challenge the conviction on constitutional or fundamental grounds.” In a recent criminal case, the defendant pleaded guilty to using a minor to distribute heroin back in 1999. He was sentenced to six years in prison, and all but 18 months were suspended, followed by three years of probation.

In 2011, after the defendant completed serving his 1999 sentence, he was charged with another crime, possession of a firearm by a felon. Once he pleaded guilty to this crime, he was subject to an “enhanced sentence” due to his previous convictions. Before he was sentenced, the defendant filed a petition for a writ of error coram nobis, asking that his drug conviction be vacated because his guilty plea from 1999 was not made knowingly and voluntarily. The trial court granted the petition and vacated his conviction. The State appealed, reasserting its original arguments:  the guilty plea was valid, and the petition was barred by laches.

Laches is a defense raised on equity principles against asserting stale claims, and it is based on grounds of public policy. Under Maryland law, it is established that laches will apply when there is an unreasonable delay in the assertion of one’s rights and that delay results in prejudice to the other party. The court of special appeals reviewed these two elements of the State’s laches defense. First, the court found that the defendant unreasonably delayed in the assertion of his rights, and that it was unreasonable for him to fail to pursue his claim regarding the validity of the guilty plea during the nine-year period of time immediately after he was convicted. For the second part of the test, the court found that the defendant’s unreasonable delay in acting to assert his rights resulted in substantial prejudice to the State. The State would now be unable to retry him for the crimes for which he was charged all those years ago.

Ultimately, the court concluded that the defendant’s coram nobis petition was barred by laches and therefore reversed the lower court’s decision, effectively reinstating the conviction. Clearly, there are many complex legal matters associated with any criminal defense, whether it is during a case or after a conviction has been handed down. If you have been arrested or charged with a crime, it is critically important that you contact an experienced criminal defense attorney from the local area as soon as possible.  Anthony A. Fatemi has extensive experience handling criminal defense cases in Maryland.  Our office will work diligently to develop a strong strategy to defend your case. Contact us at 301-519-2801 or via our online form.

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