New Maryland Appellate Opinion on Criminal Sentencing

In Robson v. State, the court looked at how Maryland judges are restricted in sentencing defendants.  The answer?  Maryland judges have a lot of latitude when it comes to sentencing.

Facts of Robson v. State

Two Sheriff’s deputies, Merle and Sanchez,  went to serve a peace order on the appellant at his home. They approached the appellant’s basement apartment, where they saw a lit window. After knocking loudly on the door, the appellant opened it, allegedly pointing a shotgun at Deputy Merle’s face.  What was he thinking?  Let’s just say Jim Beam was involved.

Deputy Merle radioed for help, drew his own gun, and ordered the appellant to drop the shotgun. The appellant wised up. He complied and other officers arrived to arrest him.  The whole thing happened very quickly. The appellant’s aggressive behavior lasted for a very short time, primarily in response to a knock at his door.

Deputy Sanchez testified that she thought the appellant was intoxicated, as his speech was slurred. The appellant claimed – plausibly, I guess – that he had the shotgun near the door because he had been shooting squirrels the day before. He testified that he picked up the shotgun, unlocked the door, and opened it with the gun pointed towards the floor.

The jury acquitted the appellant of first-degree assault, was hung on the second-degree assault charge, and convicted him of reckless endangerment.

The Sentencing Hearing

At the sentencing hearing, the prosecutor expressed concern about the appellant bringing a firearm to the door when answering it. The trial judge Quincy L. Coleman, a former public defender, said he would would not tolerate anyone pointing firearms, shotguns, or anything else, especially when there was evidence of alcohol consumption.  The defense suggested Probation Before Judgment, and the Presentence Report indicated that serving time on weekends might be adequate. The Howard County prosecutor preferred a sentence of five years with all but thirty days suspended, followed by probation.


However, Judge Coleman took a stricter approach, focusing on the appellant’s handling of the shotgun. He emphasized that the deputies have a right to go home to their families and that the court would not tolerate such behavior. The judge sentenced the appellant to five years in the Department of Corrections, suspending all but two years, followed by three years of probation upon release.

The defense counsel objected to the sentence. The lawyer contended that the judge wrongly assumed that the appellant had pointed the weapon at the deputy’s face. The core of the argument was that if this was the case, the appellant would have been found guilty of first- or second-degree assault. It is, the logic follows, that the sentencing was based on the facts that judge found instead of the jury.  So the core of the appellant’s legal argument was that it is inappropriate for the judge to consider a fact that the jury did not conclude.  The defense did not provide any legal authority to support this claim, relying more on the “you know the law can’t be” type of argument.  So the issue in the case is whether it was indeed inappropriate for the sentencing judge to impose the sentence as he did.

Court’s Ruling in Robson v. State

The Maryland intermediate court, in an opinion written by Judge Laura S. Ripken (a former prosecutor), found that appellant’s argument that the jury must have found that the appellant did not point the shotgun at Deputy Merle’s face or head, was not a logical inference from the verdict.  The court reasoned that the not guilty verdict for first-degree assault and the hung jury for second-degree assault did not necessarily imply that the jury rejected the act of pointing the shotgun at the deputy’s head or face.

The court emphasized that the jury could have rejected the intent to cause “serious physical injury” while still finding the act of pointing the shotgun at the deputy’s head or face. Additionally, the court explained that the hung jury for second-degree assault could have resulted from uncertainty about the intent or the knowledge of the deputy’s official status, without any conclusion being reached about the act of pointing the shotgun at the deputy’s head. As a result, the court dismissed the appellant’s argument as unsupported by the verdicts.

The court also stated that with respect to second-degree assault,  the crime requires the offender to “intentionally cause physical injury” and be aware of the victim’s status as a law enforcement officer. The hung jury could have resulted from uncertainty about the intent, knowledge of the deputy’s official status, or both, without any conclusion being reached about the act of pointing the shotgun at the deputy’s head.

Overarching Issue

The court could have just stopped write there.  But it went deeper, digging into Maryland’s rules and regulations for sentencing compared to trial proceedings. Appellate review of sentences is restricted to three grounds: whether the sentence constitutes cruel and unusual punishment, whether the sentencing judge was motivated by impermissible considerations, and whether the sentence is within statutory limits.

The Maryland courts have pretty consistently held that that sentencing judges have broad discretion in what they can consider when imposing sentences, and the strict rules of evidence do not apply during sentencing proceedings. A sentencing judge may consider evidence that was not part of the trial, conduct of which a defendant has been acquitted, and evidence that was unconstitutionally obtained. But, the court cautioned, even though these rules give sentencing judges a great deal of flexibility, they are not unlimited. Sentences that violate constitutional or statutory limitations will be subject to appeal.