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‘Parent,’ under child sex abuse law, excludes stepparent, Md. appeals court rules

Maryland’s criminal law provision outlawing child sexual abuse by a “parent” applies only to a biological or adoptive parent, the state’s second-highest court ruled Thursday in overturning a stepfather’s conviction.

In its reported decision, the Appellate Court said stepparents and others with custody over the child may be charged under the statute’s “family” of “household” member provisions, which cover those related by blood or marriage or who are “a regular presence in the home.”

But Brandon Mohan was specifically – and erroneously – charged and convicted as a “parent” under Criminal Law Article § 3-602(b)(1) for sexual abuse of his stepdaughter, the Appellate Court said.

The three-judge panel did, however, uphold Mohan’s related conviction for sexual offense, which was not dependent on his familial relationship.

In its ruling, the Appellate Court noted the word “parent” is undefined in the criminal statute and might have, in isolation, included a stepparent.

But the law’s references to parent-like individuals in other sections of the law indicate the General Assembly intended that “parent” refer only to a biological or adoptive parent, the court held.

“Broadly interpreting ‘parent’ to include an individual who is a ‘live-in’ stepparent is not necessarily redundant,” Judge Stuart R. Berger wrote.

“Nevertheless, narrowing interpreting ‘parent’ to exclusively mean biological or adoptive parent is consistent with the legislative intent and is in harmony with the remainder of the statute,” Berger added. “This is because a stepparent could fall under CR § 3-602(b)(2) as a ‘family member’ related to the minor child by marriage. The fact that a legally married stepparent could fall under a separate subsection – which carries the same maximum penalty as a ‘parent,’ if convicted – indicates that the General Assembly intend to narrowly construe ‘parent’ to biological and adoptive parent only.”

Berger was joined in the opinion by retired Judge Glenn T. Harrell Jr., who was sitting by special assignment.

Judge Dan Friedman joined in the judgment only, stating he was bound by precedent to interpret the criminal law provision narrowly to apply only to biological and adoptive parents.

Friedman noted the provision mentions not only a parent but any “other person who has permanent or temporary care or custody or responsibility for the supervision” of the child.

A “clear, plain, and commonsense reading” of the provision would include a step-parent but for prior Maryland Supreme Court and Appellate Court decisions that supervisory responsibility is distinct from care or custody, Friedman wrote in a concurring opinion.

“I write separately, therefore, in the fervent hope that the Supreme Court of Maryland will take this opportunity to correct this misreading of the statute or so that the General Assembly can revise the statute to make even more plain, the meaning that should always have been plain.”

The Maryland Attorney General’s Office declined to comment on the decision and any plans to seek review by the Maryland Supreme Court.

Mohan’s appellate attorney, Jeffrey Ross, did not immediately respond Friday to a request for comment of the Appellate Court’s ruling. Ross is an assistant Maryland public defender.

A Wicomico County Circuit Court jury found Mohan guilty in 2021 of child sexual abuse by a parent, third-degree sex offense, fourth degree sex offense and second-degree assault. The verdict was reached after the judge rejected the defense’s argument that Mohan was not the girl’s “parent.”

Mohan was sentenced to 25 years in prison for child sexual abuse and a suspended sentence of 10 years for the third-degree sex offense. His convictions for fourth-degree sexual offense and second-degree assault were merged with the third-degree sex offense for sentencing purposes.

In overturning the sexual abuse conviction and 25-year sentence, the Appellate Court sent the case back to circuit court for Mohan to be resentenced for his third-degree sex offense conviction. The new sentence may not exceed the earlier one of 10 years.

The Appellate Court rendered its decision in Brandon Mohan v. State of Maryland, No. 1853 September Term 2021.