Maryland Judge’s Declaration Without Defendant Present Prevents Retrial on Drug Charge

When you are facing a criminal trial, the U.S. and Maryland constitutions give you certain clear rights. One of these is the right to be present at your trial. When a court violates your rights, the law may give you certain options as a result of this constitutional violation. In the case of one man arrested in Montgomery County, a judge’s decision to declare a mistrial on a drug charge while the man was involuntarily away from court due to a medical emergency resulted in jeopardy attaching. This meant that the man’s constitutional protection against double jeopardy prevented him from facing another trial on that charge, according to a recent Maryland Court of Appeals ruling.

The trial in this case involved a man, Kenneth Hart, whom the state charged with multiple drug offenses arising from a traffic stop police in Montgomery County initiated. On May 19, 2014, the trial began. At the end of day two, the case was given to the jury for deliberations. They considered four charges, including two heroin-related charges, a cocaine charge, and a PCP charge. Court officers took Hart to a holding cell while the jury deliberated. Three and one-half hours into their deliberations, the jury sent a note to the judge stating that they had a consensus on three charges but were deadlocked on the first charge — possession of heroin with intent to distribute.

The judge brought the attorneys for both sides back into court. Bailiffs were sent to retrieve Hart, but he had begun suffering chest pains and was in an ambulance en route to the hospital by that time. With Hart’s attorney and the prosecutor present, but without Hart’s attendance, the judge interviewed the jury foreperson about the state of the deadlock on the first charge. At the end of this conversation, the court accepted the guilty verdict on charges 2-4 and declared a mistrial on charge #1.

Three months later, Hart filed a motion to dismiss. He argued that his constitutional protection against double jeopardy barred the state from trying him again on the previously deadlocked count, possession of heroin with intent to distribute. The trial judge denied the request, concluding that a retrial would not violate Hart’s double jeopardy rights. The Court of Special Appeals, however, reversed that decision. The trial court should not have proceeded that night and declared a mistrial without Hart present. By making such a declaration without Hart present or a waiver of his right to be present, double jeopardy prevented a retrial on that charge.

The state appealed this decision, but the Court of Appeals upheld the double jeopardy ruling. The ruling highlights the extent of an accused person’s right to be present during his trial. That right holds true unless the accused person or his lawyer waives that right.

In Hart’s case, the defense attorney waived Hart’s right to be present while the judge conversed with the jury foreperson. However, the defense lawyer’s waiver of the client’s right to be in court ended there and could not be construed to waive anything beyond strictly that one event. The defense lawyer’s limited waiver certainly did not waive Hart’s right to be present when the judge issued an ultimate decision on one of the charges, as she did when she declared a mistrial on charge #1.

A criminal defendant does not have an absolute right to be present at all points in a trial. For example, a defendant does not have to be present “at a conference or argument on a question of law.” However, with events like the declaration of a mistrial on a pending charge, the accused person definitely has a right to be present. By going forward without Hart, the judge violated Hart’s rights, and, as a result, jeopardy attached to the possession with intent to distribute charge, meaning that his protection against double jeopardy barred a retrial on that crime.

Whenever you or a loved one are facing criminal charges, you need knowledgeable counsel who understand all of the law’s nuances and permutations, as well as the options afforded to an accused person if the judge or the prosecutor in the case violates those rights. Maryland drug crime attorney Anthony A. Fatemi has the experience, skill, and resources to ensure that your rights are protected to the fullest extent in your criminal case. Contact us at 301-519-2801 or via our online form.

More blog posts:

Mistrials, Double Jeopardy, and Maryland Criminal Cases, Maryland Criminal Lawyer Blog, Aug. 7, 2016

Maryland Court Rules Second Indictment Violates Double Jeopardy Clause, Maryland Criminal Lawyer Blog, Feb. 18, 2016

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