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Cruz-Quintanilla v. State

Court of Appeals of Maryland

July 31, 2017


          Argued: February 3, 2017

         Circuit Court for Prince George's County Case No. CT131649B

          Barbera, C.J., Greene, Adkins, McDonald, Watts, Hotten, Getty, JJ.


          Barbera, C.J.

         We consider in this case whether evidence of a convicted defendant's membership in a gang is admissible at sentencing, where the gang membership is unrelated to the underlying criminal conviction but the evidence establishes that all gang members are aware of, and required to participate in, the criminal acts of violence of the gang. For the reasons that follow, we answer that question in the affirmative.


         The trial, sentencing, and appeal

         Petitioner Oscar Cruz-Quintanilla was indicted in the Circuit Court for Prince George's County on numerous charges in connection with the robbery of the home of Adolfo Sical-Rosales and his wife, Rosa Murillo-Aguilar, on July 26, 2013. Following a jury trial, he was convicted of reckless endangerment; wearing, carrying, or transporting a handgun; and conspiracy to commit robbery with a dangerous weapon. For purposes of this opinion, there is no need to summarize all of what occurred at trial. Relevant to this appeal is what occurred at sentencing.

         At sentencing, the State sought to introduce for the first time evidence that Cruz-Quintanilla was a member of the gang known as MS-13. Over defense counsel's objections, the court permitted Sergeant George Norris of the Prince George's County Police Department to testify regarding Cruz-Quintanilla's MS-13 membership.

         Sergeant Norris testified that various tattoos on Cruz-Quintanilla's body, shown in photographs admitted into evidence, indicate that he is a member of MS-13. According to police records of the Sergeant's encounters with MS-13 members and Cruz-Quintanilla specifically, Cruz-Quintanilla has been a documented MS-13 member since at least 2004. Sergeant Norris further testified that "[o]ne of the common mottos" for MS-13 is "mata, m-a-t-a, vola, v-o-l-a, controla, c-o-n-t-r-o-l-a, which is kill, rape, and control." Any MS-13 member would "have to know that MS-13 engages in violence because the mere initiation of MS-13 involves violence. It involves you getting beaten by your own MS-13 member friends." Sergeant Norris stated that "there are several actions that you have to take prior to being jumped in [i.e., initiated], which is putting in work for the gang or committing crimes for the gang to show that you are loyal to the gang and show that they can trust you, that you're going to support the gang." Sergeant Norris added that one cannot be a member of MS-13 and decline to participate in violence. Any MS-13 member who declines to participate in the gang's criminal acts of violence is subject to discipline by other gang members.

         The State argued for the imposition of a total sentence of 26 years. The State based its recommendation on the evidence of Cruz-Quintanilla's MS-13 gang membership since 2004, the nature of the crimes of which he was convicted, and his prior record.[1] The court, noting that it had considered "[a]ll of the evidence" in the case, sentenced Cruz-Quintanilla to terms of three years of imprisonment on the weapon and reckless endangerment convictions, to be served concurrently. For the conspiracy to commit armed robbery conviction, the court sentenced Cruz-Quintanilla to 20 years of imprisonment, with all but nine years suspended, to run consecutive to the two other sentences. Upon Cruz-Quintanilla's release, he must serve a period of probation of five years.[2]

         On appeal, Cruz-Quintanilla asserted, among other arguments, that the circuit court erred in admitting evidence of his gang membership at sentencing. The Court of Special Appeals affirmed the judgment of the circuit court. Cruz-Quintanilla v. State, 228 Md.App. 64, 71-72 (2016). Emphasizing "'that a sentencing court is vested with virtually boundless discretion' in imposing a sentence, " the intermediate appellate court concluded that "it was properly within the discretion of the sentencing court to consider evidence regarding the nature and activities of MS-13 as it pertained to the court's consideration of [Cruz-Quintanilla's] character." Id. at 68, 70 (citation omitted). The Court of Special Appeals recognized that, although in some instances admission of evidence regarding beliefs or memberships protected by the First Amendment is prohibited during sentencing, "that evidence may be admissible in appropriate cases in which evidence of criminal or violent conduct of the gang is introduced." Id. at 69 (citing Dawson v. Delaware, 503 U.S. 159, 165-66 (1992)). Because Sergeant Norris's testimony established that Cruz-Quintanilla endorsed not only the beliefs of MS-13, but also its criminal activities, that evidence was properly admitted. Id.

         We granted Cruz-Quintanilla's petition for writ of certiorari to answer "[w]hether trial courts may admit gang membership evidence in a sentencing hearing when the gang membership is unrelated to the convictions and the defendant is not connected to any criminal offenses on behalf of the gang." Cruz-Quintanilla v. State, 450 Md. 101 (2016). As noted at the outset of this opinion, the answer to that question is "yes."


         Discussion A trial judge's discretion during sentencing proceedings

         This Court has long adhered to the general principle that the "sentencing judge is vested with virtually boundless discretion" in devising an appropriate sentence. Smith v. State, 308 Md. 162, 166 (1986) (citation omitted); see also Abdul-Maleek v. State, 426 Md. 59, 71 (2012); Jones v. State, 414 Md. 686, 693 (2010); Jennings v. State, 339 Md. 675, 683 (1995). The sentencing judge is afforded such discretion "to best accomplish the objectives of sentencing-punishment, deterrence and rehabilitation." Smith, 308 Md. at 166. To achieve those objectives, the sentencing judge is not constrained simply to "the narrow issue of guilt." Id. at 167 (citation omitted). Rather, "[h]ighly relevant-if not essential-to [the judge's] selection of an appropriate sentence is the possession of the fullest information possible concerning the defendant's life and characteristics." Id. (citation omitted). So it is that, in exercising that discretion, the sentencing judge may take into account the defendant's "reputation, prior offenses, health, habits, mental and moral propensities, and social background." Jackson v. State, 364 Md. 192, 199 (2001) (citation omitted). "The consideration of a wide variety of information about a specific defendant permits the sentencing judge to individualize the sentence to fit 'the offender and not merely the crime.'" Smith, ...

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