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Cruz-Quintanilla v. State

Court of Special Appeals of Maryland

May 31, 2016


          Krauser, C.J., Nazarian, Thieme, Raymond G., Jr. (Retired, Specially Assigned), JJ.


          THIEME, J.

         A jury in the Circuit Court for Prince George's County found appellant, Oscar Cruz-Quintanilla, guilty of reckless endangerment, wearing and carrying a handgun, and conspiracy to commit robbery with a dangerous weapon. The court sentenced appellant to concurrent three year prison terms for the reckless endangerment and the handgun counts. As to the robbery count, he was sentenced to 20 years with all but nine years suspended, to run consecutive to the reckless endangerment and handgun sentences. Upon release, appellant must serve five years of supervised probation, with a condition that he not be involved in any gang activity or be a member of any gang.

         Appellant presents the following issue on appeal, which we have rephrased:[1]

Whether the circuit court erred during sentencing in permitting expert testimony regarding appellant's gang membership.

         Finding no error, we affirm.


         Appellant contends that the evidence at sentencing regarding his gang membership was improper since his convictions were completely unrelated to that membership and his convictions were not linked to any bad acts on behalf of the gang. The State responds that the evidence of appellant's gang membership was a proper consideration in the formulation of his sentence as the evidence established not only that appellant was a member of the gang, but that the gang was criminal in nature.

         At the sentencing hearing, the State presented evidence through Sergeant George Norris of the Prince George's County Police Department that appellant is a member of the MS-13 gang. Over the objection of defense counsel, Sergeant Norris testified to his experience with the MS-13 gang and his familiarity with appellant as a member of the gang. The sergeant testified that MS-13 is a violent street gang that requires its members to commit criminal acts of violence. Any MS-13 member would be aware of the gang's criminal purpose since initiation into MS-13 requires acts of violence, including being beaten by fellow gang members. The gang's motto is "mata, vola, controla, " which means kill, rape and control. According to the sergeant, appellant has been a known member of MS-13 since at least 2004. Appellant has admitted that he is an MS-13 member and he has multiple MS-13 tattoos evidencing his gang membership. MS-13 tattoos are exclusive to members of the gang; anyone bearing MS-13 tattoos other than a member, would be killed by MS-13.

         Based on the nature of appellant's convictions and his documented MS-13 gang affiliation, the State requested that the court impose a sentence totaling 26 years, which was above the sentencing guidelines but still permitted by statute.[3] Defense counsel responded that a sentence of nine years, with all but four years suspended, was more appropriate. The court sentenced appellant to a total of 23 years, with all but 12 years suspended.


         It is well established in Maryland "that a sentencing court is vested with virtually boundless discretion" in imposing a sentence. Jennings v. State, 339 Md. 675, 683 (1995)(citations and internal quotations omitted). "A court has a power to impose whatever sentence it deems fit as long as it does not offend the maximum and minimum penalties." State v. Parker, 334 Md. 576, 592-93 (1994)(citation omitted). The sentencing court's broad discretion however, does not permit the imposition of a sentence that is cruel and unusual; violative of constitutional requirements; motivated by ill-will, prejudice, or other impermissible considerations; or that exceeds statutory limitations. Jennings, 339 Md. at 683.

         Appellant's sole challenge to his sentences is that the court improperly considered evidence of his gang affiliation. Relying on Dawson v. Delaware, 503 U.S. 159 (1992), appellant contends that the introduction of evidence of his MS-13 gang membership violated his First Amendment rights, and that his convictions were unrelated to his MS-13 affiliation. Appellant's reliance on Dawson, however, is misplaced. In Dawson, the United States Supreme Court held that evidence introduced at sentencing regarding defendant's membership in the Aryan Brotherhood, a white supremacist prison gang, violated the First Amendment because it was irrelevant to the defendant's sentencing. Id. at 166-67. The Court concluded that since the prosecution failed to prove that the Aryan Brotherhood committed any unlawful or violent acts, or endorsed such acts, the evidence did not prove any aggravating circumstances beyond the defendant's "mere abstract beliefs." Id. at 167. Explaining that the Constitution does not erect a "per se" barrier against the admission of evidence regarding beliefs protected by the First Amendment, the Court acknowledged that evidence may be admissible in appropriate cases in which evidence of criminal or violent conduct of the gang is introduced. Id. at 165-66. "In many cases, for example, associational evidence might serve a legitimate purpose in showing that a defendant represents a future danger to society." Id. at 166.

         In appellant's case, the evidence regarding MS-13 was not limited to the constitutionally protected beliefs of the gang. Sergeant Norris testified to the criminal acts that the gang requires of its members, including the violent acts required for initiation into the gang. It would be reasonable to infer from the evidence that as a documented ...

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