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State v. Thomas

Court of Appeals of Maryland

June 24, 2019


          Argued: November 29, 2018

          Circuit Court for Worcester County Case No.: 23-K-16-000038

          Barbera, C.J. Greene, McDonald, Watts, Hotten, Getty, Adkins, Sally D., (Senior Judge, Specially Assigned) JJ.


          Adkins, J.

         The past twenty years have seen a dramatic increase in heroin use, abuse, and accessibility.[1] Unsurprisingly, Maryland has experienced a correlating spike in heroin and opioid-related deaths.[2] Our State, and Marylanders alike, seek tools to combat this epidemic. We are asked to consider under what circumstances the dangers of heroin would justify holding a dealer liable for involuntary manslaughter for supplying the means by which his customer fatally overdoses. The issue is fraught. The perception of an epidemic cannot solely dictate its legally recognized danger. As our role requires, we address the issue in the specific context of this sale of heroin to determine where the act falls on the continuum of culpability.

         The question presented is at once straightforward and weighty: whether the evidence in the trial court was sufficient to sustain Patrick Joseph Thomas' ("Thomas") conviction for involuntary manslaughter.[3] We resolve this case in favor of Petitioner, holding that there was sufficient evidence to convict Thomas of gross negligence involuntary manslaughter.


         The State charged Thomas with three counts: distribution of heroin, reckless endangerment, and involuntary manslaughter. Thomas entered, what we have termed before, a "hybrid plea," wherein the parties "agree to the ultimate facts," while "maintain[ing] the ability to argue legal issues, as well as sufficiency." Bishop v. State, 417 Md. 1, 22 (2010). "The State's proffer may not contain disputes of material fact, because the judge cannot resolve credibility issues on a mere proffer." Id. at 24. These agreed factual findings were read into the record by the State's Attorney and are quoted at length below.

         As an initial matter, Thomas objects to the State's citation of "at least ten journal articles, newspaper reports, and internet websites" to support its argument, because, he asserts, we are confined to the record "as presented to the lower court." Moreover, Thomas states that he "does not agree to the facts identified by the State" in its brief, particularly considering that they are not placed in the context of the time in which this incident occurred, 2015.

         We agree with Thomas that newspaper articles-excepting those referenced in the agreed statement of facts-play no role in consideration of this case. Still, this Court is able to take judicial notice of facts "not subject to reasonable dispute" and "capable of accurate and ready determination by resort to sources whose accuracy cannot reasonably be questioned." Maryland Rule 5-201(b). We may take such notice on request or sua sponte, see id. 5-201(c), regarding a range of reliable scientific and historical data. See, e.g., Faya v. Almaraz, 329 Md. 435, 445 (1993) (Surgeon General's Reports issued by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services); B.N. v. K.K., 312 Md. 135, 139-40 (1988) (reports issued by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, as well as other academic publications); Gillespie-Linton v. Miles, 58 Md.App. 484, 499 (1984) (life expectancy tables).

Agreed Findings of Fact[4]
[O]n June 26th of 2015, at approximately 3:19 in the morning, Worcester Central received a 911 call from Tammy Colleen Matrey [("Tammy")], who resides . . . [in] Ocean Pines, Worcester County, Maryland. Tammy advised that she had located her son, Colton Lee Matrey [("Colton")], locked in her bathroom. Colton was unresponsive, had no pulse and was not breathing. Tammy would testify that she had previously seen Colton earlier that day, alive and well, and had found him at this particular time of evening or early morning hours of the 26th of June unresponsive.
At 3:27 in the morning Ocean Pines Emergency Medical Services and Ocean Pines Police Officer Kerrigan arrived at the residence and located Colton seated on the toilet in the bathroom with his head propped on the vanity top. They pronounced Colton deceased. Because of the scene, it was determined that Colton died of a probable heroin overdose. And, therefore, the Worcester County Criminal Enforcement Team was contacted and asked to respond to conduct a criminal investigation of the circumstances surrounding Colton's death.
At approximately 4:30 in the morning, Detective Jeff Johns [("Johns")] of the Ocean City Police Department, assigned to the Worcester County Criminal Enforcement Team, arrived at the residence. Without objection, Johns would have been offered and accepted as an expert in the valuation and identification of controlled dangerous substances [("CDS")], the common practices of users and dealers of [CDS] and [CDS] investigations generally.
Johns arrived at the residence, went into the bathroom of the residence, observed Colton, determined that Colton's body had not been moved. . . .
Johns located one white wax paper bag inside of Colton's right hand. There were three additional identical white wax paper bags on the ground directly beneath Colton between the toilet and the vanity. Each one of these bags was stamped ["banshee"] in blue, with a blue-colored emblem. Those packages contained trace amounts of suspected contraband [and] are what Johns knows is commonly used to contain heroin.
[State's exhibits] reflect the photograph of Colton's right hand which contained the one empty package of banshee and the other photograph depicts what was found in Colton's pants pocket, which was a syringe.
Colton's bedroom was searched with the consent of his mother. And located in Colton's bedroom were four additional hypodermic syringes, a spoon and a Q-tip inside of a folded pair of Colton's jeans in the closet. These were identified by Johns as heroin paraphernalia. There was also a prescription pill bottle with the label torn off that contained six 50-milligram tramadol pills, which is a Schedule IV [CDS]. It was determined that Colton did not have a prescription for the tramadol pills and possibly had taken these pills, unknowingly, from his mother.
Johns spoke with the individuals who were present in the residence at the time [of Colton's death]. In addition to Tammy, . . . there was also James Godino [("Godino")], who was the boyfriend of Tammy, and Carissa Koons [("Koons")], who was the girlfriend of Colton.
It was determined . . . by interrogating or questioning those three individuals that Colton had been abusing heroin for approximately four[-]and[-]a[-]half years. He resided in Pennsylvania up until February of 2015, when he moved to Ocean Pines, Maryland to live with his mother. . . .
Koons had been in a relationship with Colton for four years. She advised that Colton had always had a heroin addiction. Approximately two[-]and[-]a[-]half years ago Colton had overdosed after being released from a halfway house where he had become clean of opiates. Narcan, or naloxone, was administered, and he had survived that overdose. However, Koons advised that he continued to abuse heroin after that overdose.
In February of 2015[, ] Colton moved out of the Pennsylvania area and into his mother's home in an attempt to isolate himself from the lifestyle of heroin abuse in Pennsylvania. . . .
[O]n June 25th[, ] Colton had asked his mother to borrow her debit card. Tammy allowed Colton to have her debit card so that he could rent a couple of movies.
After his death, she checked her bank transactions. She observed that Colton had rented two movies and then withdrew $40 in U.S. currency. This $40 in U.S. currency was withdrawn at 11:59 in the evening on the 25th of June . . . .
On June 25th of 2015[, ] at approximately 11:50[, ] Koons woke up from her sleep and observed that Colton had her car keys. . . . He then left the residence. . . .
Approximately five minutes after Colton left the residence, Koons called Colton. He did not answer. She woke up at approximately [1:00] in the morning, noticed that Colton was not in the bedroom with her and called him again. He did not answer, and she fell back asleep.
At approximately 3:10 to 3:15 in the morning[, ] Koons woke up again. Colton was still not back in the bedroom. She then checked the bathroom and noticed that the door was locked, looked under the door crack and observed Colton's shoes. She then woke up Colton's mother, Tammy, and Godino. Godino removed the door hinges, at which time they were able to locate Colton's body in the bathroom. He was checked for a pulse. It was determined that he was not breathing and that's when 911 had been called.
Johns, as part of the investigation, seized Colton's black in color cellular telephone. . . . Tammy granted Johns permission to search the contents of the phone in an attempt to identify Colton's supplier of heroin. . . .
Later in the day[, ] Tammy contacted Johns and advised that she had found a piece of paper inside Colton's wallet that had two names and phone numbers written down. . . .
The names and numbers written down on this piece of paper was [sic] the name Pat, with the number . . ., and also the name G - G . . . and his number . . . .
Johns, utilizing the LInX Law Enforcement database, input the number that corresponded with the name of Pat. The database search identified Patrick Joseph Thomas [("Thomas")], with a date of birth of 8/16/56, a 58-at the time-year old white male as the owner of the phone.
[Koons] indicated [to Johns] that when she woke up at approximately 11:50 on June 25th of 2015, and Colton was still in the house, she heard Colton complaining that Pat was not answering the phone. This was right before Colton left the residence in Koon's car. There was no real familiarity with Pat. Koons had never met Pat.
A physical examination of Colton's phone . . . shows that an individual by the name of Pat was saved as one of his contacts. And the phone number . . . corresponded with the number found in Colton's wallet.
Johns then looked through the . . . call log on Colton's phone and observed the following: On June 25, 2015, starting at 11:45 in the evening, [23:45] hours, Colton called Thomas 27 times . . . between 11:45 and 12:07 a.m. All of those call durations, except for the last one, were zero seconds, indicating no answer, no contact. That last call was 27 seconds long, indicating contact.
Additionally, there were text messages sent from Colton's cellular telephone sent to the number associated with Thomas. Those text messages were sent on June 25, 2015, at [23:46] hours, which stated, "I got $30, man, call me, please." June 25, 2015, at [23:48] hours, "Call me." June 25, 2015, [23:48], "I'll come to you." June 26, 2015, at two minutes past midnight, . . . "I'm here, I need 4." . . . June 26, 2015, at [00:05] hours, "Yo, I'm here."
Johns would testify, based on his training, knowledge, and experience . . . that these were outgoing cell phone calls and text messages reaching out to Thomas, inquiring about purchasing five[5] [sic] bags of heroin during those several minutes. . . .
[F]rom Colton's last communication until the time he's pronounced dead, the only person he attempted to communicate with was Thomas.
Based on that information, a search and seizure warrant was authored by Johns. And on July 2nd of 2015, a search and seizure warrant was executed on the person of Thomas and [his residence.]
Johns located a total of 60 individual white wax paper bags. These bags were stamped ["banshee"] in blue, with a blue emblem. These bags were identical in appearance to the bags recovered from Colton from the date that he expired. These bags were on a table that was directly next to the chair where Thomas was seated during the warrant execution.
Each of these bags contained a light brown powdery substance that was suspected heroin. . . . [E]ight bags were loose on the table, and there were another 52 bags that were packaged in four bundles.
There were several hundred empty . . . wax paper bags[] on the floor directly next to the chair where Thomas was seated and on the table next to Thomas. . . . Johns noticed a combination of the following: . . . wax paper bag[s] stamped "banshee" in blue with a blue emblem[;] . . . white wax paper bags stamped "banshee" in blue with no emblem[;] . . . white wax paper bags stamped "New York" in black with a black mask emblem[;] . . . blue wax paper bags stamped "Gucci" in red with a red emblem[;] . . . [and] blue wax paper bags stamped "slam" . . . in red with no emblem.
Also seized from Thomas was an LG brand cellular telephone that was on the table next to where he was seated.
[Johns examined Thomas' phone.] [A] screen shot of the LG phone . . . identified as Thomas' identif[ied] an individual logged . . . as a contact. The name is "Colton". . . . [The number] corresponds with Colton's cellular telephone.
Toll records show that the cellular telephone that was in Thomas' possession received 28 incoming phone calls from Colton's phone number, starting as [23:45] hours, or 11:45, on the evening of June 25th of 2015, and continued through seven minutes after midnight on June 26th of 2015. . . .
Johns would testify that the inconsistency, meaning there was 27 versus 28 [calls], would be that one of those calls would have been deleted by Colton accidentally.
The 60 bags recovered from Thomas' residence [were] . . . submitted . . . for testing and analysis. . . . [T]hat report reflects that the gross weight was 13.10 grams. . . . Five specimens were analyzed separately, resulting in the conclusion that those items contained the substance of heroin, a Schedule I [CDS].
[H]ad this matter gone to trial, . . . the State would have introduced the postmortem examination of the Office of the Chief Medical Examiner. . . . [The] autopsy [was] performed by [Theodore M. King, M.D. ("King")]. . . . [T]he toxicology report and findings [stated:]
"This 23-year-old white male, Colton Lee Matrey, died of alcohol and narcotic (free morphine) intoxication. The manner of death could not be determined. Autopsy detected increased levels of alcohol and a drug (free morphine) in the heart blood of the deceased and also showed evidence of heart disease and injuries to the head, neck, back, upper extremities and lower extremities. The additional finding in the prostate gland was incidental to the man's death. The deceased had been consuming alcoholic beverages and heroin (a drug) a [sic] prior to death. Post mortem testing for additional drugs was negative."
During Johns' testimony, . . . inquiry would have been made regarding the general public awareness regarding the dangers of heroin. It would be his testimony that Worcester County, this particular region, and the State of Maryland has been consumed with heroin overdoses, some resulting in deaths, and that these overdoses have resulted in an acute awareness of the dangers of heroin. Simply put, he would say, heroin kills, and everyone knows it.
He would also testify that even . . . outside of the drug use or abuse realm, it is still commonly known. He would testify that one local paper is currently running a weekly series of articles regarding the dangers of heroin use . . . . He would testify that the community itself has come together and formed groups in order to address the opioid and heroin problems facing this particular community.[6] It would be his testimony . . . that anyone in Thomas' situation would understand the dangers of heroin, and its propensity to harm physically, if not kill, individuals who are ingesting it.
Following Thomas' arrest, he was transported to the Worcester County Sheriff's Office. . . . Corporal Wells [("Wells")] and [other officers] . . . met with Thomas at the sheriff's office in the processing room. Wells advised Thomas of his Miranda rights . . . . [T]here is no argument as to the voluntariness of [Thomas'] statement.
Wells asked Thomas, "How many bags of heroin do you use a day?" Thomas replied, "About 12." Wells asked Thomas, "How many bags do you use in a single shot?" Thomas replied, "Four."
Wells advised Thomas that investigators were aware that he was travelling to Delaware to get his supply of heroin. Wells asked Thomas, "How often do you go to Delaware to get heroin?" Thomas replied, "Every two to three days." Wells asked Thomas, "How many bundles do you get at a time?" Thomas replied, "Five." Wells asked Thomas, "How much . . . did you pay today for the five bundles?" Thomas replied, "Three hundred dollars."
A bundle . . . would be testified by Johns as [being] . . . anywhere from ten to thirteen . . . individual bags of heroin. They are rubber-banded together and sold as a bundle. . . .
Wells asked Thomas, "When did you last go to Delaware to get heroin?" Thomas replied, "Today." . . . Wells asked Thomas, "How much do you sell a bag of heroin for?" Thomas replied, "Ten to fifteen dollars." Wells asked Thomas, "So out of the five bundles you got today, how many bags would you normally sell?" Thomas replied, "About 30."
Wells asked Thomas, "What is the best heroin out there now?" Thomas replied, "Banshee." Wells asked Thomas, "How long have you been selling the banshee bags?" Thomas replied, "A month or a month and a half."
Wells advised Thomas, "We saw you sell some heroin to a boy named Colton, or something like that, the other week." Thomas replied, "Yeah, you mean Colt." Wells asked Thomas, "What do you know about Colt?" Thomas replied, "He is a young boy. He told me he did some prison time in Pennsylvania." Wells asked Thomas, "How many times have you sold heroin to Colt?" Thomas advised, "A few times."
Wells told Thomas, "When we saw you sell to Colt, it was like midnight. Do you remember that?" Thomas replied, "Yeah, it was late." Wells asked Thomas, "Is that what time you normally meet with Colt?" Thomas replied, "No, that was weird. I usually met him earlier." Wells asked Thomas, "So that was the only time you sold heroin to Colt at around midnight?" Thomas replied, "Yeah." Wells advised Thomas, "Do you remember how many bags you ...

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