State v. Smith

Decision Date30 January 2020
Docket NumberNo. 2094,2094
CourtCourt of Special Appeals of Maryland


A trial court has no authority to grant a motion for judgment of acquittal during a pretrial hearing convened to decide whether to approve a plea agreement in a criminal case. If the court finds that a factual basis for the plea is lacking or otherwise finds the plea agreement deficient, then its options are as specified in Rules 4-242 and 4-243.


Double jeopardy principles do not bar the State from appealing a nominal judgment of acquittal when the trial court that entered that judgment was totally without authority to act. In substance, such a judgment is a dismissal, not an acquittal.


Under § 12-302(c) of the Courts and Judicial Proceedings Article, the State may appeal from a nominal acquittal that is, in substance, a dismissal and that was entered in circumstances where the trial court was totally without authority to act.

Circuit Court for Baltimore City

Case No. 818151003


Fader, C.J., Kehoe, Berger, JJ.

Opinion by Fader, C.J.

We must decide whether the State, the appellant here, has the right to seek appellate review of judgments resolving criminal charges in favor of the appellee, Karl Smith. The answer depends on our resolution of interrelated questions: (1) Were the circuit court's judgments, in substance, a dismissal of charges or judgments of acquittal? (2) If judgments of acquittal, did they implicate Maryland's common law double jeopardy protections?1 and (3) If not, does the State have a statutory right to appeal?

The State charged Mr. Smith with several offenses related to his illegal possession of a firearm and ammunition in his vehicle. The State and Mr. Smith appeared before the Circuit Court for Baltimore City to present a guilty plea agreement for the court's approval. After the circuit court indicated its preliminary acceptance of the guilty plea, the prosecutor recited a statement of facts in support of the plea, to which Mr. Smith agreed. The circuit court then asked whether the State possessed a particular piece of evidence, an operability report for the firearm.2 When the prosecutor failed to respond, Mr. Smith's counsel"ma[d]e a motion," which the court granted, saying, "Case is dismissed." The docket reflects that the court granted a motion for judgment of acquittal as to all charges.

The State and Mr. Smith disagree regarding whether the court's judgments were a dismissal or an acquittal of the charges. Whichever it was has no effect on the merits of the judgments because, as we will explain, the circuit court had authority neither to acquit Mr. Smith at that time nor to dismiss charges based on the State's inability to present an operability report during a pretrial guilty plea hearing. Whether that order was a dismissal of charges or acquittals does, however, affect whether we may correct the error. That is both because (1) an acquittal based on a review of evidentiary sufficiency potentially implicates Maryland's common law protections against double jeopardy, see, e.g., Scott v. State, 454 Md. 146, 152 (2017) ("[T]he State cannot reprosecute a defendant after an acquittal."), and (2) the State has a statutory right to appeal a dismissal of charges under § 12-302(c)(2) of the Courts and Judicial Proceedings Article (2013 Repl.; 2019 Supp.), but no statutory right to appeal from judgments of acquittal.

To characterize properly the circuit court's action, we must examine the Court of Appeals's double jeopardy jurisprudence, particularly regarding the effect of unauthorized acquittals. As we will explain, under Johnson v. State, 452 Md. 702, 735 (2017), the circuit court's judgments here do not implicate double jeopardy, both because the judgments were not acquittals in substance and because they were entered at a time when the circuit court was "totally without authority to act." Extending Johnson, we hold that a trial court's judgment that functions as a dismissal for double jeopardy purposes also functions as a dismissal for statutory appealability purposes. As a result, we will deny Mr. Smith'smotion to dismiss the State's appeal, reverse the circuit court's judgments, and remand for further proceedings.


On June 21, 2018, Mr. Smith appeared before the circuit court facing several charges relating to the possession of a firearm and ammunition. At the beginning of the hearing, Mr. Smith's attorney advised the court that the State had extended a plea deal of "three years, suspend all but time served, and two years probation" in exchange for a guilty plea to one count of wearing, carrying, or transporting a handgun in a vehicle in violation of § 4-203(a)(1)(ii) of the Criminal Law Article (2012 Repl.). After questioning Mr. Smith about his age, education, and ability to read and write, and confirming that he was not under the influence of drugs or alcohol, defense counsel advised Mr. Smith of the rights he would be giving up by choosing to plead guilty, including the right to trial by a court or a jury, the right to call witnesses, the right to cross-examination, the right to remain silent, and full appeal rights. Mr. Smith confirmed that he understood. The circuit court then found that Mr. Smith was "tendering [his] guilty plea freely, knowingly and voluntarily," and stated: "I accept your plea of guilty."

At the court's request, the prosecutor then provided the following statement of facts in support of the guilty plea:

On April 28, 2018, at approximately 17:29 hours, Officer Kirby and Officer Jordan were in full police uniform, operating an unmarked police vehicle in the 3000 block [of Wylie] Avenue traveling westbound. At that time Officer Kirby observed a black 2001 Acura CL one trip permit tag 318118F traveling eastbound on the 2000 block of the Avenue. The Acura had heavy tint on all the windows including the front windshield. The officers made a u-turn and proceeded toward the Acura to conduct the traffic stop for the same violation.
There was heavy traffic at this time and the vehicle immediately pulled to curbside.
The officers activated lights and sirens to conduct a traffic stop and at that time, the driver, later identified as the Defendant, Karl Smith, quickly exited the vehicle and began to walk away. Though officers advised Mr. Smith to re-enter the vehicle multiple times, which he was reluctant to do. Mr. Smith finally entered the vehicle and the officers approached.
Officer Jordan approached the driver's side door, which Mr. Smith left open, and immediately the strong odor of marijuana was coming from inside the vehicle and from Mr. Smith's person. Officer Jordan asked Mr. Smith for his driver's license. Mr. Smith replied that he did not have it on him. Officer Jordan asked Mr. Smith if he had a license, and Mr. Smith responded that he did not have one.
Officer Kirby then responded to the driver's side door with Officer Jordan. Mr. Smith was asked to exit the vehicle. Officer Kirby observed two yellow jugs of green plant residue[/]suspected marijuana in the driver door panel in plain view. Officer Kirby then reached under the seat and immediately felt what he believed to be the barrel of a firearm. Officer Kirby then moved the driver's seat all the way back, at which time Officer Kirby observed a black Smith & Wesson .38 caliber revolver, serial number 224690. At that time Mr. Smith was arrested and advised of his Miranda Rights, to which Mr. Smith responded that yes, he understood his rights.
Officer Kirby recovered the firearm, which was fully loaded with five live .38 caliber rounds with one in the chamber. Officer Kirby immediately rendered the revolver safe. Located in the rear center console of the Acura was a clear ziplock with various means of packaging materials used to package and distribute marijuana. The officers requested a tow truck. [Inaudible] responded to the scene and advised that the Acura belonged to her and that she was Mr. Smith's girlfriend.
All property [was] seized and submitted by Officer Kirby. Officer Kirby contacted the Maryland Gun Center which advised that the firearm was listed as stolen from Baltimore County on April 10, 2018. The firearm was tested by a Fire[arm] Examiner in the Baltimore Police Department's Lab, by Jeremy Lockhart (phonetic) and found to be operable. All events occurred in Baltimore City, Maryland.

After the prosecutor finished reading that statement, the following exchange occurred:

THE COURT: Thank you.
[DEFENSE COUNSEL]: No additions, modifications or deductions.
THE COURT: Do you have an Operability Report?
[DEFENSE COUNSEL]: Your Honor, I make a motion.
THE COURT: Motion is granted. Case is dismissed.
[DEFENSE COUNSEL]: Mr. Smith, you've been acquitted of all the charges. We can file a motion and see if we can have that expunged from your record.

The clerk docketed Mr. Smith's motion as a motion for judgment of acquittal, granted by the circuit court as to all charges. This appeal followed.


Where appealability is at issue, we ordinarily would not begin our analysis with a discussion of the merits of the challenge. Here, however, the merits are inextricably intertwined with the appealability issue itself. In Part I, we review general principles governing guilty plea deals, dismissals, and acquittals in criminal cases. In Part II, we consider Mr. Smith's motion to dismiss, asking separately whether the circuit court's judgments preclude the State's appeal on double jeopardy grounds and whether the State has a statutory right of appeal. In Part III, we return to the merits.

A. Guilty Pleas and Plea Agreements

"A guilty plea 'is an admission of conduct...

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