Lawrence v. State

Citation475 Md. 384,257 A.3d 588
Decision Date10 August 2021
Docket NumberNo. 32, Sept. Term, 2020,32, Sept. Term, 2020
Parties Neal LAWRENCE, IV v. STATE of Maryland
CourtCourt of Special Appeals of Maryland

475 Md. 384
257 A.3d 588

STATE of Maryland

No. 32, Sept. Term, 2020

Court of Appeals of Maryland.

August 10, 2021

Argued by Brian M. Saccenti, Asst. Public Defender (Paul B. De Wolfe, Public Defender of Maryland, Baltimore, MD), on brief, for Petitioner.

Argued by Conor M. McCarthy, 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 and Biran, JJ.

Getty, J.

257 A.3d 591
475 Md. 389

This case involves the statutory interpretation of § 4-203 of the Criminal Law Article, which sets forth Maryland's prohibition on "wear[ing], carry[ing], or transport[ing] a handgun, whether concealed or open, on or about the person[.]"1 We are tasked with determining whether the General Assembly intended for its enactment, which does not include language indicating mens rea , to set forth a strict liability offense. Thirty-three years ago, in Lee v. State , 311 Md. 642, 537 A.2d 235 (1988), this Court unanimously and unequivocally held that the predecessor statute to CR § 4-203(a)(1)(i) imposed strict liability for wearing, carrying, or transporting a handgun on or about the person.2 Although short, the Lee Court's analysis determined that the plain language and legislative history of Article 27, § 36B(b) both pointed to one conclusion—that the General Assembly intended to create a strict liability offense by wholly omitting mens rea as an element of the offense.

As part of Maryland's code revision, the General Assembly enacted the Criminal Law Article in 2002. Article 27, § 36B(b)

475 Md. 390

was recodified as CR § 4-203(a) but the language remained substantially unchanged from the wording analyzed by the Lee Court. The General Assembly subsequently amended the statute eight times without altering the language of CR § 4-203(a)(1)(i). Relying on the doctrine of stare decisis , which ordinarily requires this Court to adhere to its precedent, we hold that the General Assembly intended for CR § 4-203(a)(1)(i) to set forth a strict liability offense. While we recognize the Supreme Court's longstanding presumption that criminal offenses contain mens rea as an element, the text, structure, and legislative history of CR § 4-203(a)(1)(i) preclude us from reading a "knowingly" mens rea into the statute.

Moreover, in declining to amend the statutory language in the thirty-three years since Lee was decided, the General Assembly has acquiesced to this Court's holding in that case. Where CR § 4-203(a)(1)(i) is neither unconstitutional under the Due Process Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment, nor in conflict with Maryland law outlining strict liability "public welfare offenses," we are unconvinced that an exception to the doctrine of stare decisis applies here. Thus, because Lee is still good law, we affirm the judgment of the Court of Special Appeals and interpret CR § 4-203(a)(1)(i) as setting forth a strict liability offense.


A. The Arrest.

In the early morning hours of July 29, 2017, Maryland State Police Trooper Nicolas Urbano ("Trooper Urbano") responded to the report of a red Nissan Altima stopped in the middle of Route 152 near Interstate 95 in Harford County. Upon arriving at the stopped vehicle, Trooper Urbano observed that the engine was running, the brake lights were activated, and the driver's side window was open. Trooper Urbano approached the vehicle and noticed that an unresponsive male was sitting in the driver's seat. Trooper Urbano first

257 A.3d 592

tried to speak to the unresponsive male through the open driver's side window, but

475 Md. 391

he did not respond. Trooper Urbano then yelled for the male to wake up, however, he remained unresponsive. This prompted Trooper Urbano to shake the individual's shoulder and administer a sternum rub.3 The male did not respond. Trooper Urbano then opened the driver's side door, put the car in park, and administered a second sternum rub.

At trial, Trooper Urbano identified the male in the driver's seat of the Nissan as Neal Lawrence, IV and testified that Mr. Lawrence regained consciousness after the second sternum rub. As Mr. Lawrence regained consciousness, Trooper Urbano "observed what appeared to be the handle or back of a handle of a handgun." Trooper Urbano explained that the handgun was located "kind of in between [Mr. Lawrence's] legs in the center of the driver's seat but on the floorboard." Trooper Urbano ordered Mr. Lawrence out of the car and, after assisting him from the driver's seat, placed him in handcuffs.

Trooper Urbano patted down Mr. Lawrence's clothing for weapons and, according to his testimony, he immediately noticed the odor of alcohol. At this time, Mr. Lawrence told Trooper Urbano that he was travelling from his house in Baltimore to his girlfriend's house in Edgewood. Having removed Mr. Lawrence from the vehicle and placed him in handcuffs, Trooper Urbano then "went back to the vehicle and secured the handgun that was under the driver's seat on the floorboard." Trooper Urbano testified that, after removing the handgun from the vehicle, he removed the magazine from the handgun and observed that it contained four bullets.

While conducting his investigation, Trooper Urbano also attempted to determine whether Mr. Lawrence owned the

475 Md. 392

Nissan. Trooper Urbano testified that, during his investigation, he conducted a search in the National Crime Information Center ("NCIC") database that allowed him to access records from the Maryland Motor Vehicle Administration ("MVA").4 Based on MVA records found in the NCIC database, Trooper Urbano determined that Mr. Lawrence owned the vehicle.5 At the conclusion of Trooper Urbano's investigation, he placed Mr. Lawrence under arrest and drove him to the State Police Barracks in Bel Air.

After arriving at the State Police Barracks, Trooper Urbano conducted a full search of Mr. Lawrence's person and found "crack cocaine rocks inside one of [Mr. Lawrence's] socks." Mr. Lawrence consented to a battery of field sobriety tests, from which Trooper Urbano determined that Mr. Lawrence was under the influence of alcohol or a controlled dangerous substance. Trooper Urbano's conclusion was confirmed later that morning when, while Mr. Lawrence was in custody,

257 A.3d 593

police officers administered an Intoximeter test that registered a blood alcohol concentration of .13.6

Mr. Lawrence waived his Miranda7 rights and admitted that he had smoked "crack" a few hours before he was found unresponsive by Trooper Urbano. When asked about the handgun found in the vehicle, Mr. Lawrence stated that it was

475 Md. 393

not his and "denied knowing anything about" it. Based on Trooper Urbano's investigation and Mr. Lawrence's admissions, the State charged Mr. Lawrence with possession of ammunition by a disqualified person; possession of a regulated firearm by a disqualified person; wearing, carrying, or transporting a handgun on or about the person; possession of cocaine; driving under the influence of alcohol; and driving while impaired by a controlled and dangerous substance.

B. The Trial and Appeal.

1. The Jury Instruction.

Mr. Lawrence stood trial in the Circuit Court for Harford County and, at the close of evidence, his counsel objected to the State's requested jury instruction on the wearing, carrying, or transporting a handgun charge. The jury instruction sought by the State read:

The defendant is charged with the crime of carrying [or] transporting a handgun upon their person. In order to convict the defendant, the State must prove: (1) That the defendant, wore, carried, or transported a handgun that was within his reach and available for his immediate use.

A handgun is a pistol, revolver, or other firearm, capable of being concealed on or about the person, and which is designed to fire a bullet by the explosion of gunpowder.[8 ]
475 Md. 394

Mr. Lawrence's counsel objected to the instruction and argued that it incorrectly disposed of the mens rea —knowledge—required to convict under this charge:

There doesn't seem to be any requirement for the person to even know they have the firearm on their person. When I say on the person, it doesn't have to be on the person. It can be apparently transported somewhere in a vehicle and under the definition still be technically on your person. So, I guess you could have a gun in your car or someone could secret a small gun in your jacket and you could be convicted without any knowledge at all merely because the gun, in fact, was there without any scienter or mens rea on your

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