Johnson v. State

Citation467 Md. 362,225 A.3d 44
Decision Date28 February 2020
Docket NumberNo. 9, Sept. Term, 2019,9, Sept. Term, 2019
Parties Dana T. JOHNSON, Jr. v. STATE of Maryland
CourtCourt of Special Appeals of Maryland

Argued by Eva Shell, Asst. Public Defender (Paul B. DeWolfe, Public Defender of Maryland, Baltimore, MD), on brief, for Petitioner.

Argued by Virginia S. Hovermill, Asst. Atty. Gen. (Brian E. Frosh, Atty. Gen. of Maryland, Baltimore, MD), on brief, for Respondent.

Argued before: Barbera, C.J., McDonald, Watts, Hotten, Getty, Booth, Sally D. Adkins (Senior Judge, Specially Assigned), JJ.

Getty, J. Petitioner Dana Terrell Johnson, Jr. was convicted of volume possession of a controlled dangerous substance under Maryland Code ("Md. Code") (1957, 2012 Repl. Vol., 2019 Supp.), Criminal Law ("CR") § 5-612 in the Circuit Court for Baltimore County. Mr. Johnson received a total sentence of fourteen years' imprisonment, the first five without the possibility of parole. Mr. Johnson now contends that his sentence is illegal because the express language of CR § 5-612 fails to state a maximum potential term of imprisonment.

The General Assembly clearly established the maximum term of imprisonment for felony possession of a Schedule I narcotic drug when Article 27, § 286 was originally enacted in 1970: "[a]ny person who violates [Article 27, § 286(a) ] with respect to [a Schedule I narcotic drug] shall, upon conviction, be deemed guilty of a felony and sentenced to a term of imprisonment for not more than twenty (20) years." Article 27, § 286(b)(1) (1970).1 This maximum penalty provision in the broader penalty scheme remained unchanged through several amendments to Article 27, § 286, the recodification of the Criminal Law Article, and CR § 5-612. Until 2005, CR § 5-612 indicated that the maximum penalty associated with volume possession of a Schedule I narcotic drug was twenty years' imprisonment. Senate Bill 429 of the 2005 Legislative Session, a well-intentioned bill passed to conform certain criminal laws with recent Supreme Court decisions, had the unintended effect of severing the mandatory minimum penalty in CR § 5-612 from the base penalty for possession of a narcotic drug in CR § 5-608.

For the reasons that follow, we conclude that CR § 5-612 is unambiguous and Mr. Johnson's sentence is not illegal because the maximum term of imprisonment under CR § 5-612 is, and has always been, twenty years. Accordingly, we shall affirm the judgment of the Court of Special Appeals.


Baltimore County Police Department Officers Evan Vicarini and Bryan Trussell patrolled the streets of Woodlawn, Baltimore County, Maryland on a rainy February morning in 2017. The officers observed a silver Acura with abnormally dark, tinted windows. The window tint entirely obscured the officers' line of sight into the vehicle, leading Officer Trussell to believe the level of tint exceeded the permissible amount allowable under Maryland law. A Motor Vehicle Administration record check revealed that the registered owner of the Acura did not possess a Maryland driver's license. The officers activated their patrol car's emergency equipment to stop the vehicle. The driver of the Acura, later identified as Petitioner Dana Johnson ("Mr. Johnson"), initially complied. As the officers exited their patrol car and approached the vehicle, Mr. Johnson sped away. The officers pursued Mr. Johnson as he crossed into oncoming traffic and failed to stop at a red traffic light. However, treacherous roadways and poor weather conditions increased the danger to the public and forced the officers to abandon the chase.

Officers Vicarini and Trussell deactivated their patrol car's emergency equipment, resumed normal driving speeds and proceeded in the same direction where they last saw the Acura flee. At the next intersection, the officers spotted the Acura stopped at a red light. This time, the officers pulled up behind the Acura without activating any emergency equipment. Mr. Johnson again drove away. The officers trailed the Acura at a distance without breaking any traffic laws. From approximately one-half mile behind the vehicle, the officers watched as the Acura ran another red light and collided with another vehicle. The officers approached the crash scene and attended to Mr. Johnson and the other driver. Baltimore County Fire and Rescue arrived on scene, extracted Mr. Johnson from the Acura and transported him to Sinai Hospital of Baltimore ("Sinai Hospital").

Baltimore County Police Department Officer Sean Daley accompanied Mr. Johnson to the trauma unit of Sinai Hospital. While tending to Mr. Johnson, Sinai Hospital employees removed Mr. Johnson's clothes and placed them on the hospital bed. Officer Daley concurrently searched each article of clothing. Officer Daley discovered a large plastic bag of off-white powder in Mr. Johnson's undergarments, which he believed to be heroin. A forensic chemist from the Baltimore County Crime Lab later confirmed the substance to be 47.18 grams of heroin. The State charged Mr. Johnson with six counts: (1) volume possession of heroin; (2) possession of heroin with intent to distribute; (3) simple possession of heroin; (4) attempting to elude a police officer; (5) failure to provide license to police on demand; and (6) failure to provide insurance information to another driver after an accident.

Mr. Johnson proceeded before a bench trial in the Circuit Court for Baltimore County on August 28, 2017. The circuit court found Mr. Johnson guilty of possession of heroin in violation of CR § 5-601(a)(1), volume possession of heroin in violation of CR § 5-612, and attempting to elude a police officer in violation of Md. Code (1986, 2012 Repl. Vol., 2017 Supp.), Transportation Article ("TR") § 21-904(c)(1). On September 27, 2017, the court merged the conviction for simple possession into the conviction for volume possession and sentenced Mr. Johnson to fourteen years' imprisonment, the first five without the possibility of parole. The court concurrently sentenced Mr. Johnson to time served for attempting to elude a police officer. Mr. Johnson appealed. In a reported opinion, the Court of Special Appeals affirmed the convictions. Johnson v. State , 240 Md. App. 200, 203, 201 A.3d 644 (2019). Mr. Johnson then petitioned this Court for a writ of certiorari to determine the maximum allowable period of imprisonment for a violation of CR § 5-612. More specifically, Mr. Johnson asked the following:

1. Section 5-612 of the Criminal Law Article, which prohibits possession of certain quantities of controlled dangerous substances, provides that "[a] person who is convicted of a violation of subsection (a) of this section shall be sentenced to imprisonment for not less than 5 years and is subject to a fine not exceeding $100,000." What is the maximum allowable period of incarceration for a violation of this law?
2. Did the circuit court impose an illegal sentence of fourteen years of incarceration for a violation of section 5-612 of the Criminal Law Article ?

We granted Mr. Johnson's petition on April 22, 2019. Johnson v. State , 463 Md. 550, 206 A.3d 327 (2019).

As to the first question, informed by the legislative history of former Article 27, § 286 and the current version of CR § 5-612, we hold that the maximum allowable period of imprisonment for a violation of CR § 5-612 is twenty years. It follows, then, that the circuit court did not impose an illegal sentence when it sentenced Mr. Johnson to fourteen years' imprisonment. Accordingly, we affirm the judgment of the Court of Special Appeals.


A. The Parties' Contentions.

Mr. Johnson principally argues that the circuit court imposed an illegal sentence of fourteen years' imprisonment following his conviction under CR § 5-612. In support of this argument Mr. Johnson contends the plain language of CR § 5-612 is ambiguous for its failure to expressly state a maximum sentence and the statute's legislative history fails to resolve the ambiguity. In his view, because CR § 5-612 provides notice of only one potential term of imprisonment—the mandatory minimum sentence of five years' imprisonment without parole—that penalty must also be construed as the mandatory maximum penalty. Simply put, Mr. Johnson argues that the legislature's failure to explicitly state a maximum penalty renders CR § 5-612 ambiguous as to the maximum allowable term of imprisonment. Further, Mr. Johnson contends the legislative history fails to resolve this ambiguity; therefore, the rule of lenity must apply in his favor and the maximum legal sentence under the statute can be no more than five years' imprisonment.

The State counters that Mr. Johnson's sentence is legal. According to the State, the Legislature's omission of a maximum sentence grants a sentencing court wide discretion to impose an appropriate sentence. The State urges us to construe statutes lacking a maximum sentence provision as permitting a sentence up to life imprisonment. The crux of the State's argument is that CR § 5-612 is unambiguous. The State asserts that a plain reading of CR § 5-612 provides a sentencing "floor," and not a "ceiling." Alternatively, the State suggests the surrounding provisions in the Criminal Law Article and the Maryland Sentencing Guidelines display the clear intent of the General Assembly that the maximum sentence is twenty years' imprisonment. Finally, the State submits that because CR § 5-612 is not vague or ambiguous, the rule of lenity does not apply.

B. Statutory Interpretation.

The interpretation of a statute is a question of law that this Court reviews de novo . Brown v. State , 454 Md. 546, 550, 165 A.3d 398 (2017) (citing Bellard v. State , 452 Md. 467, 480–81, 157 A.3d 272 (2017) ). "This Court provides judicial deference to the policy decisions enacted into law by the General Assembly. We assume that the legislature's intent is expressed in the statutory language and thus our statutory interpretation focuses primarily on the language of the statute to determine the purpose and intent of...

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