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Johnson v. State

Court of Special Appeals of Maryland

February 4, 2019

DANA T. JOHNSON
v.
STATE OF MARYLAND

          Fader, C.J., Nazarian, Eyler, Deborah S. (Senior Judge, Specially Assigned), JJ.

          OPINION

          NAZARIAN, J.

         On February 9, 2017, Dana T. Johnson led police on a car chase that ended in a nearly catastrophic accident. Mr. Johnson was arrested and taken to the hospital. As medical personnel removed his clothing, police discovered a large quantity of heroin in his underwear. He was charged and ultimately convicted in the Circuit Court for Baltimore County of possession of heroin, volume possession of heroin, and attempting to elude a police officer. The court sentenced him to fourteen years' imprisonment, the first five without the possibility of parole under Maryland Code (2002, 2012 Repl. Vol. 2018 Cum. Supp.), § 5-612 of the Criminal Law Article ("CR"), which mandates a minimum sentence of five years without the possibility of parole for a volume heroin conviction.

         Mr. Johnson appeals on two grounds. First, he argues that his sentence was illegal, and second, that the heroin found in his clothing was admitted improperly at trial because the State failed to establish the chain of custody sufficiently. We find the trial court properly exercised its discretion on both issues and affirm.

         I. BACKGROUND

         Officers Vicarini[1] and Brian Trussell were conducting a routine patrol when they noticed a silver Acura that had unusually darkly tinted windows. The officers stopped the Acura with lights and sirens, but as they began to exit their patrol car to approach, it sped off. The officers pursued the vehicle until they determined they could no longer do so safely, then abandoned the chase.

         When they saw the Acura again some time later, the officers followed the vehicle, this time without activating their lights or sirens. As they followed, though, the Acura crashed into another vehicle at an intersection. Both vehicles were crushed badly; the Acura was torn literally in half. The officers approached the scene of the crash and found Mr. Johnson, the Acura's sole occupant, trapped inside and injured.

         Emergency responders extracted Mr. Johnson from the vehicle and transported him to a local hospital. Officer Sean Daley, who had responded to the crash site, accompanied Mr. Johnson to the hospital and was in the room as medical personnel removed Mr. Johnson's clothing, and searched the clothes[2] as they were removed. In Mr. Johnson's undergarments, Officer Daley found a "large plastic bag containing an off while [sic] powder substance." Officer Daley held onto the bag, packaged it according to police evidence procedures, and returned to the precinct.

         Mr. Johnson was charged with volume possession of heroin, possession of heroin with intent to distribute, simple possession of heroin, attempting to elude a police officer; failure to give insurance information to another driver after an accident, and failure to exhibit his license to a police officer after an accident. At the close of the bench trial, the court granted a motion for judgment of acquittal as to the possession with intent to distribute, failure to give his insurance information, and failure to exhibit his license charges. The court convicted Mr. Johnson of simple possession of heroin, volume possession of heroin, and attempting to elude an officer, merged his conviction for simple possession into the volume possession conviction, and sentenced him to fourteen years' imprisonment, the first five without the possibility of parole.

         II. DISCUSSION

         Mr. Johnson argues first on appeal that his fourteen-year sentence is illegal because although CR § 5-612 provides for a mandatory minimum sentence, it does not state a maximum sentence and, therefore, failed to give him notice of a potential sentence beyond five years. We review this question of statutory interpretation de novo. Gorge v. State, 386 Md. 600, 610 (2005). Second, he contends that the trial court erred in admitting the heroin found in his underwear into evidence because the State failed to establish the chain of custody. That decision is committed to the discretion of the trial court. Wheeler v. State, 459 Md. 555, 645 (2018).

         A. Mr. Johnson's Sentence Is Legal

         Mr. Johnson's argument that his sentence is illegal hinges on a threshold finding that the statute under which he was convicted, CR § 5-612, is ambiguous. If statutory language is "clear and unambiguous when construed in accordance with its ordinary and everyday meaning, then this Court will give effect to the statute as it is written." Alston v. State, 433 Md. 275, 295-96 (2013) (cleaned up). If a statute is ambiguous, we look beyond the plain language and "consider[], in addition to the literal or usual meaning of the words used, their meaning and effect in light of the setting, the objectives and purpose of the subject enactment." Id. at 296.

         Criminal Law Article § 5-612 defines the crime of volume possession ...


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