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When Will a Maryland Court “Merge” Multiple Convictions for Purposes of Sentencing?

The Constitution prevents a person from being tried or convicted twice for the same crime. This is known as the prohibition against double jeopardy. At the same time, prosecutors often charge defendants with multiple crimes arising from the same set of facts. To avoid a potential double jeopardy violation, the trial judge can “merge” these overlapping convictions when it comes to sentencing. In other words, if you are found guilty of two crimes based on the same facts, the judge can merge one crime into the other and your sentence cannot exceed the maximum for the surviving offense.

Court of Appeals Rejects Merger in Baltimore Weapons Case

The Maryland Court of Appeals recently rejected a defendant’s request to merge two of his weapons-related criminal convictions into a single offense at sentencing. The case, Clark v. State, involved a defendant arrested in Baltimore on drug trafficking charges. During their investigation, police recovered a .45-caliber semiautomatic pistol that allegedly belonged to the defendant.

At trial, prosecutors charged the defendant with both “possession of an assault weapon” and “possession of a firearm by a person previously convicted” of a drug-related felony. These are defined as separate offenses in the Maryland Code. The jury found the defendant guilty on both counts. The judge then imposed the maximum sentence on both charges and ordered the defendant to serve those prison terms consecutively, a total of eight years.

On appeal, the defendant said the trial judge should have merged both charges into a single offense at sentencing. The Court of Appeals disagreed. The Court explained there were two tests that judges used to decide whether merger was required. The first was known as the required evidence test. Under this test, the judge must find that the two charges “are effectively the same offense” or “one of the charges is a lesser-included offense of the other.” In this case, both convictions were based on the same facts. But one charge required proof the defendant had a prior felony drug conviction. The other did not. Conversely, one charge required proof the defendant possessed an “assault weapon.” The other only required proof the defendant possessed a “firearm.” Since the “required evidence” for each charge was therefore different, the defendant was not entitled to a merger.

The second merger test is called the rule of lenity. This test looks at whether or not the Maryland General Assembly actually “intended to allow or prohibit sentences for multiple offenses based on the same acts.” As the Court of Appeals explained, this rule is basically a “tiebreaker that favors a defendant” when the law is ambiguous. Here, the Court said there was “no need to resort” to the tiebreaker. The legislative history of both criminal statutes involved unambiguously expressed the General Assembly’s intent to “target distinct concerns” and allow for “separate sentences.”

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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.