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Merchant v. State

Court of Appeals of Maryland

May 23, 2016


          Argued: March 7, 2016

         Circuit Court for Prince George’s County Case Nos. CT00-0536X, CT10-0648X

          Barbera, C.J. [*] Battaglia Greene Adkins McDonald Watts Hotten, JJ.


          Greene, J.

         In this case, we address the standard of review applicable to a circuit court's review of the findings and recommendations of an Administrative Law Judge (ALJ) for the grant or revocation of a conditional release for a "committed person"[1] pursuant to Md. Code (2001, 2008 Repl. Vol., 2015 Cum. Supp.), §§ 3-114 et seq., of the Criminal Procedure Article ("CP"). The statutory scheme of CP, Title 3: Incompetency and Criminal Responsibility in Criminal Cases was interpreted previously in Byers v. State, 184 Md.App. 499, 966 A.2d 982 (2009).

         The case of Dennis Merchant v. State of Maryland is before us by way of certified question pursuant to Maryland Rule 8-304.[2] The case of Marshall Tyrone Stoddard v. Department of Health and Mental Hygiene is before us by way of petition for writ of certiorari. Because both cases address common issues of law, we will address the following questions, which we have rephrased in this consolidated opinion:[3]

1. Did the Circuit Court err in determining that the statutory scheme, set forth in Criminal Procedure Article §§ 3-114, et seq., for the granting and/or revocation of the conditional release of a committed person violates the separation of powers provision found in Article 8 of the Maryland Declaration of Rights and is thus void as unconstitutional?
2. Did the Circuit Court err in revoking Merchant's conditional release and ordering his continued commitment for institutional inpatient care and treatment after the ALJ had found that Merchant was eligible for conditional release and had recommended the same?
3. Did the Circuit Court err in refusing to consider the ALJ's report and recommendations and refusing to grant Stoddard's conditional release?

         We shall answer these questions in the affirmative and hold that under CP §§ 3-114, et seq., the substantial evidence standard applies to a circuit court's review of an ALJ's findings of facts and recommendations.


         A. Dennis Merchant

         On April 4, 2000, Dennis Merchant ("Merchant") was indicted in the Circuit Court for Prince George's County for attempted carjacking, attempted robbery, second degree assault, attempted theft over $500, and possession of a controlled dangerous substance. Merchant entered a plea of not criminally responsible by reason of insanity on April 24, 2000. The Circuit Court for Prince George's County found Merchant guilty of attempted carjacking but not criminally responsible at the time of the commission of the offense and committed him to the Department of Health and Mental Hygiene ("DHMH" or "Health Department").[4] Between December 4, 2000 and August 19, 2014, the Circuit Court granted Merchant conditional releases on various occasions but each conditional release was subsequently revoked, resulting in Merchant's recommitment to DHMH for treatment.

         Merchant's appeal arises out of the following events. The State filed a petition for revocation of Merchant's conditional release on August 20, 2014[5] pursuant to CP § 3-121(c).[6] On the same day, a deputy sheriff apprehended Merchant pursuant to a hospital warrant[7] issued by the Circuit Court in accordance with CP § 3-121(e) of the Criminal Procedure Article.[8] On February 26, 2015, ALJ D. Harrison Pratt for the Office of Administrative Hearings ("OAH" or "the Office") held a hearing on the State's petition for revocation at Springfield Hospital Center, where Merchant was committed.[9] In ALJ Pratt's Report on Revocation of Conditional Release Hearing ("Revocation Report"), he concluded that Merchant "sustained his burden of establishing eligibility for conditional release." ALJ Pratt based his conclusion on testimony presented at the hearing, which he summarized in his Revocation Report. He found by a preponderance of the evidence that:

1. On or about September 21, 2000, the [c]ourt committed [Merchant] to [DHMH] after a verdict of Not Criminally Responsible for the charge of attempted carjacking.
2.Subsequently [Merchant] was admitted to Springfield, a hospital under the control and jurisdiction of [DHMH].
3. On or about July 26, 2013, the [c]ourt granted [Merchant] a conditional release.
4.[Merchant] remained at Springfield until April 2014 when he was released to a residential placement, Arundel Lodge.
5. [Merchant] was released on conditions as ordered by the [c]ourt.
6. On August 19, 2014, the Arundel Lodge Program Manager notified the CFAP [Community Forensic Aftercare Program] that [Merchant] had violated the conditions of his release.
7. [Merchant] violated condition #1 of his release by going on four separate unauthorized leaves of absence from Arundel Lodge. He violated condition #5 by refusing to admit himself to Springfield after being told to do so by Arundel Lodge staff.
8.On August 19, 2014, after receiving correspondence from Arundel Lodge, the CFAP advised the State's Attorney of [Merchant's] violations. The State's Attorney then filed a Petition for Revocation of Conditional Release. The [c]ourt issued a Hospital Warrant, and [Merchant] was returned to Springfield on August 20, 2014. He has been a patient at Springfield since that time.
9. Upon his return to the hospital[, ] his treating psychiatrist was Dr. Ngozi Nwanna.[10]
10. Initially [Merchant] was irritable with mild mania on his return to to Springfield. He informed Dr. Nwanna that he had convinced his outpatient psychiatrist to decrease his medication dosage. This caused [Merchant] to decompensate.
11. [Merchant] was diagnosed as having a bipolar condition with psychosis at the time of his readmission to Springfield.
12. The hospital increased the dosage of his medication, and he quickly stabilized. He is currently stable while taking the appropriate dosage of medicine. He is doing exceptionally well at the hospital, and he has been compliant with those medicines prescribed for his condition. He is employed at the hospital, regularly attends group therapy sessions and is one of the better patients. He is currently free of any symptoms of his mental illness, and he has good insight as to his mental illness as well as sound judgment. He has reached the maximum level of improvement.
13. Should [Merchant] be granted a conditional release he would again participate in the Arundel Lodge residential program, The staff from Arundel Lodge has agreed that he may rejoin their program. He would receive mental health treatment through Arundel Lodge, and the staff would monitor his medicines and activities.
14.Dr. Nwanna and the staff at Springfield are of the opinion that [Merchant] is not now, as the result of any mental illness, a danger to himself or the person or property of others as long as he abides by the proposed conditions of release.

         At the hearing, Merchant also testified on his own behalf. As the Revocation Report summarized, Merchant understood "that he has a mental illness and is committed to taking his prescribed medications at the dosages prescribed." Based on the evidence[11] and testimony[12] presented at the hearing, ALJ Pratt concluded that the evidence demonstrates:

[Merchant] has gained substantial insight into his mental illness and understands the critical connection between his mental health issues and his problems with the law. He has also exhibited insight into the incident that brought him to the Hospital. He has demonstrated significant improvement in his mental health. The evidence demonstrates that [Merchant] has cooperated fully with treatment in the Hospital, is compliant with his prescribed medication, and is committed to succeeding if he is released. [Merchant] also demonstrated a thorough knowledge of the rules for conditional release and expressed a sincere desire to comply with those conditions. He also exhibited insight into the role that his therapist would play in the community and expressed a willingness to return to the Hospital if it were to become necessary . . . . Accordingly, I conclude that [Merchant] has established that he would not be a danger to himself or to the person or property of others, as the result of a mental illness, if he were released subject to the proposed conditions.

         ALJ Pratt recommended that Merchant be conditionally released from confinement for a period of five years. Citing CP § 3-121(h), the Revocation Report also noted that "[w]ithin five (5) days after receipt of this report, the committed person or his attorney, the State's Attorney, or [DHMH] may file written exceptions to the determination made herein."[13] No exceptions to the report were filed. The Revocation Report was mailed to the Honorable Sean Wallace of the Circuit Court for Prince George's County for court action. Copies of the exhibits ALJ Pratt admitted into evidence were also forwarded to Judge Wallace.

         DHMH filed a "Motion to Hold a Hearing on the Record Made Before the Office of Administrative Hearings, " which Merchant joined. In this motion, DHMH requested that Judge Wallace submit on the ALJ's findings and recommendations, and thereby adopt the Revocation Report and order Merchant's conditional release. Counsel for Merchant filed a separate memorandum to address the issues of: (1) whether Byers v. State, 184 Md.App. 499, 966 A.2d 982 (2009) controlled Merchant's case, which arises under CP § 3-121, and (2) the implication of the separation of powers doctrine on Title 3 of CP.[14] The motion and memorandum addressed a prior Opinion Judge Wallace issued on October 28, 2011 after a hearing on one of Merchant's earlier revocations of conditional release. In the October 2011 opinion, Judge Wallace concluded that the ALJ procedure under Title 3 was unconstitutional and refused to apply the substantial evidence standard per the interpretation outlined in Byers.[15]

         On May 8, 2015, Judge Wallace held a hearing on ALJ Pratt's recommendations. At this hearing, DHMH asked Judge Wallace to consider its motion and reconsider his October 28, 2011 opinion with regard to his conclusions about the separation of powers doctrine and the Court of Special Appeals interpretation of the law in Byers. Judge Wallace denied DHMH's motion. He stated, "I am going to also incorporate my prior written [October 28, 2011] opinion in this case and the analysis there . . . . my position is that you need to present evidence before me to determine whether or not the release of Mr. Merchant would be appropriate." After allowing the parties to present evidence, and hearing testimony from Dr. Ngozi Nwanna and Merchant, Judge Wallace issued an Opinion and Order on May 28, 2015. In this Opinion and Order, Judge Wallace noted that since January 3, 2001, Merchant "has violated the conditions of his release several times." Of those times, "the conditional release was revoked a few times [during] the other times he was continued on conditional release."[16] Judge Wallace discussed the interpretation of the statutory scheme explained in Byers[17] and the separation of powers doctrine of Article 8 of the Maryland Declaration of Rights. He then concluded that "the ALJ in a release hearing is performing a judicial function" in violation of the separation of powers doctrine. Judge Wallace rejected the substantial evidence standard discussed in Byers, stating that while "[a] review of the ALJ's record reveals that there was sufficient evidence to support his recommendation that the defendant be conditionally released again . . . . The statute that requires the court to defer to [the ALJ's] recommendation is unconstitutional and thus I do not defer to it." He further concluded that he was "unpersuaded by [DHMH's] psychiatrist and the other incomplete evidence, that defendant has shown he would not be a danger if released with the recommended conditions" and revoked Merchant's conditional release.

         On November 6, 2015, the Court of Special Appeals granted Merchant's Application for Leave to Appeal. On November 9, 2015, the Court of Special Appeals certified Merchant's appeal to this Court to answer two certified questions.

         B. Marshall Stoddard

         On May 21, 1010, Marshall Stoddard ("Stoddard") was indicted in the Circuit Court for Prince George's County for first and second-degree attempted sexual offense, first and second-degree attempted rape; first and second-degree assault; and false imprisonment.[18]Stoddard entered a plea of not criminally responsible by reason of insanity on October 5, 2010. On January 7, 2011, Judge Wallace found Stoddard guilty of attempted second-degree sexual offense.[19] He also found Stoddard not criminally responsible at the time of the commission of the offense. The court committed Stoddard to DHMH. On February 24, 2011, an administrative hearing was held to determine Stoddard's eligibility for release from commitment pursuant to CP § 3-115.[20] Stoddard appeared at the hearing, waived his right to an evidentiary hearing, and agreed to remain committed to DHMH. Subsequently, Judge Wallace issued an Order of Continued Commitment on March 23, 2011.

         On December 27, 2013, Stoddard filed an application for release pursuant to CP § 3-119(b).[21] In a letter dated December 30, 2013, the staff at Thomas B. Finan Center ("Finan Center") where Stoddard was committed recommended that he be placed on conditional release for a period of five years. On January 10, 2014, ALJ Michael J. Wallace held a hearing on the application for release at the Finan Center. In ALJ Wallace's "Report on Release Eligibility" ("Release Report"), he found that Stoddard had sustained his burden of proof for conditional release. CP § 3-114(d) provides that "a committed person has the burden to establish by a preponderance of the evidence eligibility for discharge or eligibility for conditional release."[22] ALJ Wallace found by a preponderance of the evidence that:

1. On January 7, 2011, after a verdict of NCR [not criminally responsible] to second degree attempted sexual offense, the [c]ourt committed [Stoddard] to [DHMH] for inpatient care and treatment.
2. [Stoddard] was initially placed at [Clifton T.] Perkins [Hospital Center], and then transferred to the [Finan] Hospital on September 24, 2012, where he remains today.
3.Since his admission, [Stoddard] has been able to maintain the highest level of privileges available to him, which includes being off the locked nursing unit for an hour at a time unescorted and community visits with staff supervision. These community visits have been without incident. [Stoddard] has only lost privileges at times due to violations of the hospital smoking policy.
4. [Stoddard] was required to register as a Tier I sex offender and complied with this after admission. He has also been compliant with subsequent re-registrations.
5. [Stoddard] has been assigned to a number of groups, including The Courage to Change, Stress Management, Leisure Skill Development, Leisure Awareness, Health Club, Volunteer, Community Leisure Skills, Values, Community Meeting, Release Readiness, Smoking Recovery, Community Leisure Skills, and individual therapy groups. In addition, he regularly attends [Finan] Hospital's NA/AA Meetings.
6. [Stoddard] continues to be medication compliant and will ask questions about his medication as he takes them. [Stoddard] also consistently verbalizes his need for medications. No delusions or hallucinations have been noted and when he was asked about his medications, he stated, "I wish I had these medications 20 years ago."
7.[Stoddard] has mental disorders diagnosed as Schizoaffective Disorder and History of Polysubstance Abuse on Axis I.
8. [Stoddard] has been an active participant in treatment since his admission to the [Finan] Hospital. He has been compliant with all aspects of treatment and has been willing to discuss the crime that resulted in the finding of NCR and how his illness impacted his ability to confirm his behaviors to the requirements of the law. [Stoddard] verbalizes acceptance of his responsibility that in order to prevent future incidents, he needs to remain compliant with his medications, maintain close working relationships with his treatment providers and avoid the stressors that resulted in his decompensation and subsequent crimes.
9. [Stoddard] is currently prescribed the following psychiatric medications:
Prolixin 5mg twice daily for Schizoaffective Disorder
Lamictal 150mg daily for mood stabilization
Cogentin 2mg at bedtime for prevention of extra-pyramidal symptoms
Oxcarbazepine 600mg in the morning and 600 mg at bedtime for mood stabilization
Gabapetin 600mg three times daily for mood stabilization
Geodon 160mg daily for mood disorder
Trazodone 100mg at bedtime for insomnia
10. [Stoddard] is currently stable and compliant with medication, attends various groups and is active in discussing and preparing for his discharge. [Stoddard] has not been a behavioral problem and has not exhibited any assaultive behavior since being adjudicated NCR.

         Based on the evidence[23] and the testimony[24] presented at the hearing, ALJ Wallace concluded that the evidence was "persuasive that [Stoddard] would not be a danger to himself or others if released subject to the proposed conditions" and recommended that Stoddard be conditionally released for five years. Citing CP § 3-116(d), the Release Report noted that "[w]ithin ten (10) days after receipt of this report, the committed person or his attorney, the State's Attorney, or [DHMH] may file written exceptions to the determination made herein."[25] No exceptions to the report were filed. The Release Report and copies of the exhibits ALJ Wallace admitted into evidence were forwarded to Judge Wallace.

         On April 4, 2014, Judge Wallace held a hearing on Stoddard's conditional release. As in Merchant's case, DHMH filed a "Motion to Hold a Hearing on the Record Made Before the Office of Administrative Hearings." Judge Wallace denied the motion, explaining that he finds the statute to be unconstitutional for violating the separation of powers doctrine "for the reasons that I've stated previously in writing in State versus Merchant." Counsel for DHMH and Stoddard objected to the admission of any testimony at the hearing, which Judge Wallace overruled, stating, "I'm going to allow [Stoddard] to present evidence that he thinks might justify my authorizing such a release." He further stated that "I'm not going to consider the administrative law judge's thing [Release Report], but there is a copy of it in the file for the record." He then proceeded to hear testimony from Dr. Okusami, Stoddard's treating psychiatrist, a social worker who has worked with Stoddard during his time at Finan, and Stoddard himself. At the conclusion of the hearing, Judge Wallace declared that "it certainly seems [Stoddard has] made progress, but I'm not persuaded at this time -- and I'm going to deny the request for conditional release."

         The Court of Special Appeals granted Stoddard's application for leave to appeal on June 29, 2015. Prior to any proceedings in the Court of Special Appeals, Stoddard filed a petition for writ of certiorari in this Court, which we granted.[26] Stoddard v. Dept. of Health and Mental Hygiene, 445 Md. 487, 128 A.3d 51 (2015).


         "The interpretation of a statute is a question of law, which we consider de novo." Harrison-Solomon v. State, 442 Md. 254, 265, 112 A.3d 408, 415 (2015). To determine the General Assembly's intent under the statutory scheme of CP, Title 3, we apply the rules of statutory construction, which this Court has summarized in numerous cases:

The cardinal rule of statutory interpretation is to ascertain and effectuate the real and actual intent of the Legislature. A court's primary goal in interpreting statutory language is to discern the legislative purpose, the ends to be accomplished, or the evils to be remedied by the statutory provision under scrutiny.
To ascertain the intent of the General Assembly, we begin with the normal, plain meaning of the statute. If the language of the statute is unambiguous and clearly consistent with the statute's apparent purpose, our inquiry as to the legislative intent ends ordinarily and we apply the statute as written without resort to other rules of construction. We neither add nor delete language so as to reflect an intent not evidenced in the plain and unambiguous language of the statute, and we do not construe a statute with forced or subtle interpretations that limit or extend its application.
We, however, do not read statutory language in a vacuum, nor do we confine strictly our interpretation of a statute's plain language to the isolated section alone. Rather, the plain language must be viewed within the context of the statutory scheme to which it belongs, considering the purpose, aim, or policy of the Legislature in enacting the statute. We presume that the Legislature intends its enactments to operate together as a consistent and harmonious body of law, and, thus, we seek to reconcile and harmonize the parts of a statute, to the extent possible consistent with the statute's object and scope. Where the words of a statute are ambiguous and subject to more than one reasonable interpretation, or where the words are clear and unambiguous when viewed in isolation, but become ambiguous when read as part of a larger statutory scheme, a court must resolve the ambiguity by searching for legislative intent in other indicia, including the history of the legislation or other relevant sources intrinsic and extrinsic to the legislative process. In resolving ambiguities, a court considers the structure of the statute, how it relates to other laws, its general purpose and relative rationality and legal effect of various competing constructions.
In every case, the statute must be given a reasonable interpretation, not one that is absurd, illogical or incompatible with common sense.

Gardner v. State, 420 Md. 1, 8–9, 20 A.3d 801, 806 (2011) (citing State v. Johnson, 415 Md. 413, 421–22, 2 A.3d 368, 373 (2010)).


         The procedure under Maryland law for dealing with those not criminally responsible was changed in 1984 with the inception of Senate Bill 645 which resulted in the enactment of 1984 Md. Laws, Chap. 501. The purpose of Senate Bill 645 was to "revise, restate, and recodify the laws relating to incompetency and criminal responsibility in criminal cases." Senate Judicial Proceedings Committee, Summary of Committee Report, S.B. 645 at 3 (Md. 1984) (hereinafter Summary of Committee Report). The Summary of Committee Report further provided that "[t]he purpose of the bill is to implement the recommendations of the Task Force[27] in an effort to streamline and strengthen, where necessary, the procedures for the defense of not criminally 'responsible' in Maryland." Id. Senate Bill 645 was originally codified in Md. Code (1982, 1989 Cum. Supp.), § 12-101 et.seq., of the Health-General Article ("HG") and later recodified as Title 3 of CP.

         In both cases before us, the Circuit Court concluded that the statutory scheme set forth in CP §§ 3-114, et. seq., for the granting and/or revoking of the conditional release of a committed person is unconstitutional. All parties contend that this conclusion was in error. It is well documented that State statutes enjoy "a strong presumption of constitutionality." Burruss v. Bd. of Cty. Commissioners of Frederick Cty., 427 Md. 231, 263, 46 A.3d 1182, 1201 (2012). Furthermore, "[w]e do not presume that the Legislature intended to enact unconstitutional legislation and, if it did so intend, we would limit a statute to only those situations in which it would pass constitutional muster." Harrison-Solomon, 442 Md. at 287, 112 A.3d at 428. While the Honorable Charles E. Moylan, Jr. did not specifically address the constitutionality of Title 3 in Byers, his analysis properly proceeded on the presumption that Title 3 is constitutional. We begin our discussion on the same premise.

         The Separation of Powers Doctrine

         In Maryland, the separation of powers doctrine is embodied in Article 8 of the Maryland Declaration of Rights.[28] We recently stated that this "doctrine does not, however, rigidly establish strict lines of demarcation between the three branches of government." Meyer v. State, 445 Md. 648, 672, 128 A.3d 147, 161 (2015). We have repeatedly recognized the concept of constitutional elasticity. See Meyer, 445 Md. at 673, 128 A.3d at 162 ("In Maryland, we have applied this 'sensible degree of elasticity' when alleged violations of the separation of powers doctrine occurred."); McCulloch v. Glendening, 347 Md. 272, 284, 701 A.2d 99, 105 (1997) ("Thus, the separation of powers doctrine does not require absolute separation between the branches of government."); Dep't of Nat. Res. v.Linchester Sand & Gravel Corp., 274 Md. 211, 220, 334 A.2d 514, 521 (1975) ("We believe this to be permissible, within limits, as the separation of powers concept may constitutionally encompass a ...

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