Thursday, January 25, 2007

Price v. State (Ct. of Special Appeals)

Decided January 25, 2007--Opinion by Judge James R. Eyler

Price was convicted by a jury of possession of heroin, possession of cocaine, possession of marijuana, and possession of a firearm under sufficient circumstances to constitute a nexus to a drug trafficking crime. The court sentenced Price to eight years imprisonment on the heroin possession, a consecutive eight years imprisonment on the cocaine possession, two years concurrent on the marijuana possession, and another twelve years imprisonment consecutive on the possession of a firearm conviction.

Four issues were raised on appeal:

1) Whether the evidence was sufficient to sustain Price's convictions;

2) Whether the court erred by refusing to ask an impaneled juror, who was later dismissed, whether he had discussed the reason for his dismissal with any of the other jurors;

3) Whether the court erred by doubling Price’s sentences for all three drug possession convictions pursuant to Maryland Code (2002 Repl. Vol.) §5-905 of the Criminal Law ("C.L.") Article;

4) Whether the court erred by allowing the jury to convict Price of possession of a handgun in connection with trafficking, and acquit him of all other drug trafficking charges.


1) To support a conviction for the offense of simple possession, the evidence must show directly or support a rational inference that the accused did in fact exercise some dominion or control over the prohibited drugs in the sense contemplated by the statute, i.e., that the accused exercised some restraining or directing influence over it. Additionally, the accused, in order to be found guilty, must know of both the presence and the general character or illicit nature of the substance and referred to the following factors to determine the issue of possession:

(i) proximity between the Defendant and the contraband, (ii) the fact that the contraband was within the view or otherwise within the knowledge of Defendant, (iii) ownership or some possessory right in the premises or the automobile in which the contraband is found, or (iv) the presence or circumstances from which a reasonable inference could be drawn that the Defendant was participating with others in the mutual use and enjoyment of the contraband.

The evidence adduced at trial consisted mainly of testimony of the police officers who were conducting surveillance. From this testimony, the court found, the jury could have reasonably concluded that Price was in close proximity and had knowledge of the presence of the drugs, inferred that Price was participating in the sale and that the gun and money thrown by Price were instruments related to the sale of the drugs. Thus, the evidence was sufficient to support Price's possession convictions.

2) A note left by juror number 4 for the judge indicated concern by the juror of potential reprisal given that he resided within close proximity to the neighborhood where Price was arrested. Prior to dismissal of the juror, Defense argued that the juror should be questioned as to whether he explained his dismissal to other jurors, potentially tainting the jury. The court found that, on several occasions, the jurors had been admonished not to discuss the case, and the trial court did not abuse its discretion by dismissing the juror without further inquiry as to whether he had discussed with anyone his reasons for wanting to be dismissed.

3) The State contends that C.L. §5-905 authorized the court to double Price's sentences because of his status as a repeat offender. Price countered that doubling his sentences is explicitly limited to one count only. The court found the language of §5-905 ambiguous; that the language of the statute does not make clear whether an enhanced penalty can be imposed on each and every count arising out of a single course of conduct, or whether an enhanced penalty can only be imposed on one count of a multi-count charging document based on a single course of conduct. Relying on Diaz v. State, the rule of lenity applied and required vacating Price's sentences.

4) The court noted that although unexplained, inconsistent verdicts rendered by a trial judge cannot stand, inconsistent verdicts in a jury trial are generally tolerated under Maryland law. At the appellate level, the court will review such inconsistent verdicts where real prejudice is shown and the verdicts may be attributable to errors in the jury charge.

The jury, without finding Price guilty of one of the drug trafficking offenses, found him guilty of possession of a firearm with a nexus to drug trafficking. Price conceded that the jury instructions were correct and the court decided not to disturb the jury’s verdict.

A copy of the opinion is available in PDF.

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