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When “Knowledge” of a Crime is Not Required for a Conviction

With certain exceptions, it is generally against the law in Maryland for an individual to “wear, carry, or transport a handgun, whether concealed or open, on or about the person.” Historically, Maryland has considered this a “strict liability” offense. This means that prosecutors do not have to prove mens rea–that the defendant acted with knowledge–to obtain a conviction. The mere fact the defendant was found with a handgun is sufficient.

Court of Appeals Declines to Reverse 33-Year-Old Precedent

The classification of wearing, carrying, or transporting a handgun as a strict liability offense dates back to a 1988 decision from the Maryland Court of Appeals, Lee v. State. In that case, the Court concluded the “plain language and legislative history” of the statute led to the conclusion that the General Assembly “intended to create a strict liability offense by wholly omitting mens rea as an element of the offense.”

The Court of Appeals recently affirmed its earlier precedent. In Lawrence v. State, a Maryland state trooper responded to a report of a car stopped near the interstate in Harford County. The officer found the reported vehicle with the engine running and found an unresponsive man–the defendant–in the driver’s seat. The trooper also observed a handgun located “kind of in between [the defendant’s] legs in the center of the driver’s seat but on the floorboard.” The trooper later removed the gun and discovered it was loaded.

After coming to, the officer took the defendant to the police barracks. There, the defendant admitted to smoking cocaine, although he denied the handgun belonged to him. Prosecutors eventually charged him with a number of crimes, including as relevant here wearing, carrying, or transporting a handgun on or about the person.

A jury convicted the defendant on this charge and several others. Both at and after trial, the defendant objected to the lack of any “mens rea” instruction to the jury. The defense argued the jury should be required to find the defendant “knowingly” possessed a handgun. But the judge, following Maryland’s pattern jury instructions for these cases, said knowledge (i.e., mens rea) was not an element of the crime.

The defendant’s case eventually made its way to the Court of Appeals, which declined to alter its original 1988 holding in Lee. As the appellate court saw it, the General Assembly could have altered the law at any point during the past 33 years to add a mens rea requirement to the statute criminalizing the wearing, carrying, or transporting a handgun on or about the person. The legislature’s failure to do so was thus taken as “acquiescence” to the 1988 decision. And since the Court of Appeals was compelled by the rule of start decisis to follow its own precedents, the defendant’s conviction stood.

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This article has been provided by the Law Office of Robert Castro. For more information or questions contact our office to speak to an experienced lawyer at (301) 705-5137.