On Feb. 22 a Caroline County man was convicted of attempted suicide, purportedly under what is known as a common-law crime. Common law is the law that we adopted as a country after declaring independence from the United Kingdom, and is thus based on centuries’ old jurisprudence.
The state’s attorney’s office, with the acting, unelected, interim state’s attorney, Joe Riley, at its helm, prosecuted a man with obvious mental health issues. There were three charges in this case: reckless endangerment (maximum penalty 5 years); alcohol intoxication endangerment (maximum penalty 90 days); and attempted suicide (no fixed jail term). The charges stemmed from an incident wherein the defendant threatened to use a firearm to kill himself and took steps to do so when a family member intervened and called the police who took him to the hospital.
Mr. Riley, who is running for election this year, initially chose to place the case on the inactive docket but ultimately allowed his office to pursue prosecution of this individual. As correctly stated in The Baltimore Sun, retired federal Judge Frederic Smalkin cited a 2005 case from the Court of Special Appeals for the proposition that attempted suicide is likely not a crime.
It also is worth noting the United Kingdom in 1961 passed a law affirmatively stating that suicide (and therefore the crime of attempted suicide) was not a crime.
It is shameful and reprehensible that an apparently over-resourced state’s attorney’s office pursued charges of this nature when the Eastern Shore tragically experiences multiple suicides a year. The heartache and impact of losing a loved one to suicide is immeasurable. A far better use of resources would be to fund the expansion of services available to both young and old for mental health treatment. This case smacks of politicism and threatens the already vulnerable population of individuals coping with mental illness.
Finally, Mr. Riley’s response is a material misstatement of facts. His official statement is the conviction was necessary in order to prevent the individual from owning firearms so that the community would be safe from potential harm. As I understand the legal history of this individual, he was, as recently as this past January, convicted in Queen Anne’s County for concealing a dangerous weapon. Pursuant to the public safety article, this conviction alone disqualifies him outright from owning or possessing a firearm. However, he was placed on probation in Queen Anne’s County under a court order which includes an additional express prohibition of possession of firearms.
The Caroline County case, heard only weeks after the Queen Anne’s conviction and sentence, had absolutely no effect on this individual’s legal status regarding the possession of firearms. Furthermore, based on the terms of the sentence in Caroline County, if this individual violates his probation, he could go to prison for three years on the attempted suicide conviction!
Prosecuting an individual who is already disqualified from owning a firearm under the pretense of protecting the community from an unstable individual with firearms does not protect our community. If anything, it is a disingenuous use of resources and criminalizes behavior that was sadly a result of mental health issues.
Christine B. DuFour
The writer is an attorney with the Office of the Public Defender.
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