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Md. high court tells 4th Circuit robbery is inherently violent

A man seeking a reduction of his enhanced, nearly five-year federal prison sentence for gun possession by a “violent” felon received no help from Maryland’s top court on Monday.

The Court of Appeals unanimously rejected Joel Adam Dickson’s argument that his earlier robbery conviction did not render him a violent felon eligible for an enhanced sentence because robbery – under Maryland law – does not inherently involve a threat of physical harm against a person.

Dickson argued through counsel that Maryland, since the days of the Revolutionary War, has held that robbery can involve a nonviolent threat against a person’s property or a threat to accuse an individual of having committed sodomy.

But the Court of Appeals said a lot has changed in the past 240-plus years – and not in Dickson’s favor.

“It is telling that we can find no case in the annals of Maryland legal history in which the state obtained a conviction for robbery based on a threat to property or a threat to accuse the victim of sodomy,” Judge Jonathan Biran wrote for the high court.

“However the cases are legion in which this court has identified force or the threat of force as an essential element of a robbery charge,” Biran added. “Indeed, as this court has previously noted, the ‘hallmark’ of robbery that distinguishes it from other forms of theft is that robbery requires ‘the presence of force or threat of force.’”

The Court of Appeals rendered its decision in response to a question the 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals asked as it considers Dickson’s appeal of his enhanced, 57-month sentence after pleading guilty to gun possession by a convicted felon.

Dickson’s 4th Circuit appeal rests on a provision of U.S. law permitting a sentence enhancement for those who were earlier convicted of a felony that involved violence, which is defined as “the use, attempted use or threatened use of physical force against the person of another.”

U.S. District Judge Theodore D. Chuang, who sits in the federal courthouse in Greenbelt, rejected Dickson’s argument that robbery need not involve a threat of physical force against the victim in handing down the enhanced sentence in 2019.

But the 4th Circuit was not so certain and asked the Court of Appeals if, under Maryland law, an individual can be convicted of robbery based on a threat to property or of an accusation of sodomy.

Dickson – who believes his sentence should be substantially less than 57 months as a nonviolent felon – based his argument on the Maryland Constitution’s Declaration of Rights. Article 5 of the declaration provides that “inhabitants of Maryland are entitled to the common law of England” as it existed on July 4, 1776, subject to revision by the state legislature.

As of July 4, 1776, a person need not have threatened an individual physically to have committed robbery at common law but could have threatened harm to the person’s property or reputation via an accusation of sodomy, said Dickson’s attorney, Assistant Federal Public Defender Paresh S. Patel.

But Assistant U.S. Attorney Jason D. Medinger countered that English common law said no such thing and, even if it did, Maryland courts have made it clear since then that robbery involves a threat of violence against individuals, not property or reputation.

The Court of Appeals agreed in its response to the 4th Circuit.

“We determine that Maryland robbery has never included alternative modalities based on threats to property or threats to accuse another of sodomy,” Biran wrote. “But even if one or both of these modalities became part of Maryland common law in 1776, this court subsequently defined the elements of robbery without referencing threats to property or threats to accuse another of sodomy.”

Neither the federal public defender’s office nor the office of the U.S. attorney immediately returned messages Tuesday seeking comment on the high court’s ruling.

The Court of Appeals rendered its decision Joel Adam Dickson v. United States of America, Misc. No. 7, September Term 2021.

Dickson’s 4th Circuit appeal is docketed as United States of America v. Joel Adam Dickson, No. 19-4226.