Maryland’s Highest Court Disallows State’s Amendment of “Charging Document”

Criminal charges fall within two commonly known and distinct categories:  misdemeanors and felonies. Misdemeanors generally include less serious offenses and carry a less severe sentence than felonies. Despite the differences, both types of criminal charges are serious matters to be addressed as soon as a person is arrested. Keep in mind that there may be many different ways to respond to a criminal arrest or charge, depending on the circumstances of the case. In order to be sure you are presenting the strongest defense for your particular charges, it is critical that you contact an experienced Maryland criminal defense attorney as soon as possible.

In any criminal case, it is important to pay close attention to the specific charges. In a recent case, Counts v. State of Maryland, the State charged the defendant with five counts of burglary and other related crimes. The issue in this case concerns Count 4, which charged the defendant with stealing property having a value of less than $1,000. But on the day of the trial, citing a typographical error, the prosecutor asked the court to amend Count 4 to read in pertinent part:  “theft of at least a thousand but less than $10,000.” The defendant’s attorney objected, pointing out that the amendment changed the charged offense from a misdemeanor to a felony. And since felonies typically carry longer sentences, the potential incarceration went from 18 months to 10 years.

But the prosecution argued that the elements of both crimes are the same, and only the penalty is different. The trial court allowed the prosecution to change the indictment. The jury found the defendant to be guilty of fourth-degree burglary:  theft of goods having a value of at least $1,000. Later, the court of special appeals affirmed the judgment of conviction, and this court decided to review the decision. At issue was whether the trial court erred by allowing the State (over the defendant’s objection) to revise Count 4 of the charging document as described above.

Specifically, under Maryland Rule 4-204, the question was whether the amendment “changed the character of the offense charged.” That is, the court considered whether increasing the amount of the value of the stolen property from less than $1,000 – to at least $1,000 – changed the character of the offense charged. The Court looked at the particular theft statute in question, as well as case law cited by each party. Based on this review, the Court determined that the value of the property stolen constitutes an element of the crime charged. After reaching this conclusion, the Court looked at whether adding or changing an element changes the character of the offense charged – something that would be impermissible without the consent of the defendant.

The Court concluded that the amendment to Count 4 substituted “felony theft” for “misdemeanor theft.” The felony charge required proof of an element that was not required for the misdemeanor offense. This, the Court ruled, changed the basic character of the offense and was not permissible without the defendant’s consent. Therefore, the Court reversed the decision and remanded the case back to the trial court for the imposition of a sentence consistent with the original misdemeanor charge.

This case nicely illustrates the importance of understanding the specific charges in a case and how to present an appropriate and effective defense. Seeking the counsel of an experienced Maryland criminal defense attorney is one of the most effective ways to approach any criminal investigation. If you are arrested or charged with a crime, our office will work diligently to develop the best strategy to defend your case. Contact us at 301-519-2801 or via our online form.

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