What is the “rule of lenity” in Maryland?

Gun violence in Baltimore has flared up. Accordingly, news that the Maryland Court of Appeals recently published a criminal law opinion that ruled in favor of a previously convicted defendant caused a big stir among city officials and the media. The Baltimore Sun published an editorial that expressed outrage that the state’s mandatory five years without parole for gun possession by convicted felons would not stand. However, in spite of the press given to this case, the ruling in this case is narrow.

In the case, a man who had a prior nonviolent conviction was arrested and charged with more than one count of possession of a regulated firearm and a statutory handgun carrying violation. The fact that the conviction was nonviolent wound up being critical in the eventual outcome of the case.

At a jury trial, the prosecution and defense stipulated he had been previously convicted of distribution of a controlled substance and that this prevented him from being permitted to possess a regulated firearm.

The jury was only asked to determine whether he possessed the firearm, since there was a stipulation regarding the prior conviction. The jury convicted the man of the handgun violation and two counts of possession of a regulated firearm by someone with a prior conviction. At his sentencing the defendant argued that a more lenient penalty provision applied, rather than Article 27, section 449(e) as the prosecution urged.

The trial court sentenced him according to the enhanced (harsher) sentence of five years without possibility of parole and also a consecutive two-year sentence according to Article 27 and another two years concurrent sentence. The defendant appealed. Pointing to the fact that he could have been convicted under the other more lenient statute for the safe offense, he argued that under the rule of lenity, he couldn’t be sentenced to a mandatory minimum of five years without eligibility for parole.

The Court of Special Appeals vacated one of the sentences and the conviction, but permitted the Article 27 sentence to stand. It rejected the defendant’s argument about the rule of lenity, explaining that it applies to “cases of ambiguity.” The court reasoned that neither of the statutes were ambiguous in this case, so the rule of lenity didn’t apply.

The defendant asked the appellate court to review the remaining conviction and enhanced sentence. The court was to consider whether he was wrongly subjected to an enhanced penalty and whether he should have been sentenced in accord with the more lenient statute under the rule of lenity.

The appellate court explained that in order to receive the enhanced sentence of Article 27 section 449(e), the prior conviction had to be a crime that was a violent felony.

The appellate court also reasoned that though the penalty provisions in question were unambiguous when considered separately, they were ambiguous when considered together because they outlawed the same conduct but had very different penalties. The statutes did not explain why a prosecutor should choose one or the other. The court considered it inappropriate for this to be a matter of “prosecutorial whimsy.” Accordingly, the court had to apply the rule of lenity and choose the lower penalty.

Consult an experienced Maryland criminal defense attorney to get the best defense for your case. Contact Anthony A. Fatemi and his legal team for a consultation at 301-519-2801 or via our online form.

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The Voluntary Intoxication Instruction, Maryland Criminal Lawyer Blog, June 25. 2013

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