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Handgun possession crime requires no knowledge, Maryland high court says

Defendants need not know they were wearing, carrying or transporting a handgun to be found guilty of the crime, a unanimous Maryland high court said Tuesday in ruling that the gun possession violation remains a “strict liability” offense.

The Court of Appeals acknowledged its decision goes against the general legal principle that the accused cannot be convicted without having had knowledge of his or her actions, if not the actions’ illegality. But Maryland’s criminal statute contains no language to indicate that the wearing, carrying or transporting be done “knowingly” to be illegal, the high court stated.

In its 7-0 decision, the Court of Appeals upheld the gun possession conviction of Neal Lawrence IV, who said he did not know of the handgun in his car when a Maryland State Police trooper found him asleep in the driver’s seat.

The high court also reaffirmed its 1988 ruling in Lee v. State that wearing, carrying, or transporting a handgun does not require knowledge – or a mens rea in legal lingo — despite the U.S. Supreme Court’s concern regarding laws that criminalize activities of which the accused was unaware.

The Supreme Court has not deemed such strict liability crimes as violating a defendant’s constitutional right to due process, the Court of Appeals said. In addition, the Maryland General Assembly has not added a “knowingly” requirement to the state’s wearing, carrying, or transporting offense since the Lee decision interpreting Section 4-203(a)(1)(i) of the Criminal Law Article, the high court held.

“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 Section 4-203(a)(1)(i) preclude us from reading a knowingly mens rea into the statute,” Judge Joseph M. Getty wrote for the Court of Appeals. “Moreover, in declining to amend the statutory language in the 33 years since Lee was decided, the General Assembly has acquiesced to this court’s holding in that case.”

Neither the Maryland attorney general’s office nor Lawrence’s appellate attorney, Assistant Maryland Public Defender Brian Saccenti, immediately returned messages Wednesday seeking comment on the high court’s decision.

According to court documents, trooper Nicolas Urbano found Lawrence asleep in his red Nissan Altima, which was stopped with the driver’s seat window open and the engine running in the middle of Route 152 near Interstate 95 in Harford County in the early morning of July 29, 2017.

Urbano awakened Lawrence with some difficulty and noticed a handgun on the floorboard between his feet. Urbano ordered Lawrence out of the car, handcuffed him, patted him down for weapons, retrieved the handgun and arrested him.

A subsequent search of Lawrence revealed crack cocaine in one of his socks and a blood alcohol test revealed he was drunk, according to trial testimony.

At trial, the Harford County Circuit Court jury was instructed – over defense counsel’s objection — that the state had to prove beyond a reasonable doubt only that Lawrence “wore, carried, or transported a handgun that was within his reach and available for his immediate use.”

The attorney had argued in vain that jurors should have been told the crime required that Lawrence knew of the gun’s existence, which the defense had argued he did not.

The jury found Lawrence guilty of the gun crime, as well as cocaine possession, drunk driving and driving while impaired by a controlled substance.

He was sentenced to five years in prison, with all but two years suspended. Three of the five years were based on the gun conviction. Lawrence, who received credit of about a year for time served, was sentenced to an additional eight years for having violated probation, according to the high court’s opinion.

Lawrence appealed his handgun conviction, which the intermediate Court of Special Appeals upheld last year. He then sought review by the Court of Appeals.

The high court rendered its decision in Neal Lawrence IV v. State of Maryland, No. 32, September Term 2020.