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In Reversing Tax Court Decision, Court of Special Appeals Demonstrates Agencies’ Power to Shape the Law

By John Grimm

Appeals of administrative agency decisions can be deceiving. While they often involve dry and highly technical matters, they also contain some of the trickiest and most interesting problems regarding courts’ powers over a coordinate branch of government’s exercise of its legal authority. The Court of Special Appeals recently proved that in the administrative law world, important concepts can arise out of seemingly minor regulatory decisions: In this case, a $2,554.37 tax assessment.

Comptroller v. Atwood, involved the proper application of Maryland Annotated Code, Tax-General § 11-208(c)(1), which makes aircraft used principally for interstate commerce exempt from a state sales and use tax. The appellee paid $34,000 for 1958 Beechcraft airplane, which he used primarily to train his son how to fly, and to travel back and forth to JFK Airport where he worked. The Comptroller assessed a $2,040.00 sales and use tax plus interest and a penalty totaling $2,554.37. The appellate disputed the tax, first before the Comptroller, and then in the Tax Court. The Comptroller affirmed the assessment, holding that the appellee’s use of the plane was not interstate commerce and did not qualify for a tax exemption.

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Dissenters Say Supreme Court Majority Takes Easy Out In Controversial Case

By Megan E. Coleman

On June 28, 2021, the United States Supreme Court issued a per curiam opinion in Jody Lombardo, et al. v. City of St. Louis, Missouri, et al., No. 20-391. The question presented to the Supreme Court was whether a reasonable jury could find that officers used excessive force when they put a handcuffed and shackled person face-down on the ground and pressed into his back until he suffocated to death.

Rather than decide the issue, the per curiam opinion punted the question back to the Eighth Circuit, reasoning that the Eighth Circuit had discounted “insignificant” facts that might have made a difference when deciding whether to grant summary judgment on an excessive force claim. The Supreme Court also asked the Eighth Circuit to clarify whether it believed that the use of a prone restraint is per se constitutional so long as an individual appears to resist officers’ efforts to subdue him.

True to per curiam format, this opinion fails to list an author or name the justices comprising the majority. However, this per curiam opinion features a dissent by Justice Alito, which was joined by Justice Thomas and Justice Gorsuch. The dissent calls into question whether this was a proper use of a per curiam opinion, or instead, whether it was used to avoid deciding a controversial issue in the midst of a social justice movement.

The timing of the issuance of this per curiam opinion fuels the argument by the dissent as this per curiam opinion was issued just three days after Minneapolis Police Officer Derek Chauvin was sentenced for the murder of George Floyd. The Lombardo case presented facts akin to those in George Floyd’s case and ultimately called for a similar determination of whether the police used excessive force under the circumstances.

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Supreme Court’s Latest Fourth Amendment Case Clarifies Exigent Circumstances Doctrine

By John Grimm

The Supreme Court recently clarified the limits of law enforcement’s ability to enter a fleeing suspect’s home without a warrant in Lange v. California. While the Fourth Amendment generally requires police to get a search warrant before coming into a house, they can make a warrantless entry under certain exigent circumstances.[1] Lange presented the question whether the pursuit of a fleeing misdemeanor suspect is categorically an exigent circumstance. The Court held that it is not—exigency must be assessed on a case-by-case basis, and a suspect’s flight is only one circumstance that officers should weigh in making that assessment.

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The Future of Daubert in Maryland

By Derek Stikeleather

I revisit my favorite Maryland Appellate Blog topic, the admissibility of expert testimony in Maryland courts, because it continues to generate fresh, important questions for judges and practitioners. With the Court of Appeals formally adopting Daubert as the standard for construing Maryland Rule 5-702 in all state courts, see Rochkind v. Stevenson, 471 Md. 1 (2020), Federal Rule of Evidence 702 has become, for all intents and purposes, as relevant as Maryland Rule 5-702. This is so because courts cannot adopt Daubert without adopting FRE 702.

But the unusual historical interplay between the Supreme Court’s 1993 Daubert decision and the original FRE 702 can obscure FRE 702’s primacy in a Daubert analysis. The 2020 Rochkind decision—by nominally adopting “Daubert” rather than FRE 702—similarly risks confusion if Maryland courts try to “apply Rochkind/Daubert.” Maryland courts and practitioners must be clear-eyed that, in all expert challenges, they are now applying Maryland Rule 5-702 and FRE 702. And both rules continue to evolve.

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Recoverable damages for killing a pet.

By Brad McCullough

The Court of Appeals was recently faced with a tragic case involving the senseless slaying of a dog and the resulting spirited debate over the interpretation of a statute that addresses damages for the injury or death of a pet. In Anne Arundel Cty. v. Reeves, No. 68, Sept. Term, 2019 (Md. June 7, 2021), Chief Judge Barbera authored the majority opinion, holding that the statute unambiguously limits compensatory damages to the amount specified by that statute and does not allow recovery of noneconomic compensatory damages for the tortious injury or death of a pet. In a forceful dissent, Judge Hotten urged a broader reading of that statute that would allow recovery of noneconomic compensatory damages for the grossly negligent killing of a pet.

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The Institution of the Judiciary and Judicial Review, American Democracy’s Lifeline

By Alan B. Sternstein

Until recently, the social and political institutions of the United States long enjoyed, largely, the respect and the fealty of its citizenry. Though their raison d’etre vary, our institutions our schools, houses of worship, courts, legislatures and more all serve a common and fundamental function. They facilitate the conduct of orderly and rational discourse aimed at achieving consensus of purpose, in, importantly but not exclusively, matters of education, worship, governance, and commerce. Plainly, however, institutions do not guarantee discourse having such quality and effect. That depends, instead, on the character of each institution’s members. Given their essential function and the vital purposes, how is it that our most important institutions, those of government, have fallen so far in function and repute? Certainly bearing responsibility, at the federal and even state levels, has been the Supreme Court’s insensitivity to, if not abdication of, the unique position it occupies to protect our democratic form of government, which judicial proclivity is the subject of this post. We start first, though, with some political theory.

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Divergence Between the Fourth Circuit and Maryland in Extending Arizona v. Gant to Non-Vehicular Searches Incident to a Lawful Arrest

By Megan E. Coleman

Arizona v. Gant, 556 U.S. 332 (2009) involved the search of a vehicle after the driver had been lawfully arrested, handcuffed, and locked in a patrol car. The Supreme Court rendered two holdings, the first, which is relevant for this post, held that the police may not use the search incident to a lawful arrest exception to the warrant requirement to search a vehicle incident to a recent occupant’s arrest after the arrestee has been secured and cannot access the interior of the vehicle.

Gant’s first holding was premised upon Chimel v. California, 395 U.S. 752 (1969), a non-vehicular search case in which it was determined that police may search incident to arrest only the space within an arrestee’s “immediate control”, meaning “the area from within which he might gain possession of a weapon or destructible evidence.” The Chimel holding was then applied to vehicle searches in New York v. Belton, 453 U.S. 454 (1981).

However, the Gant Court limited Belton’s reach, based upon Chimel, since the purpose of allowing a search to prevent a suspect from gaining possession of a weapon or destroying evidence would be rendered nugatory where the suspect has already been secured and cannot access the interior of the vehicle.

For the past decade, in Maryland and in the Fourth Circuit, the holding in Gant has been applied exclusively to vehicle searches.

But on May 7, 2021, in United States v. Howard Davis, the United States Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit joined three other federal circuits in concluding that the holding in Gant applies to searches of non-vehicular containers as well. Now, police can conduct warrantless searches of non-vehicular containers incident to a lawful arrest, but “only when the arrestee is unsecured and within reaching distance of the [container] at the time of the search.”

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Scent of Marijuana Alone Does Not Provide Reasonable Suspicion to Seize a Person in Maryland

By Megan E. Coleman

Since Maryland decriminalized possession of less than 10 grams of marijuana in 2014, Maryland’s appellate courts have been tasked with determining how this non-criminal, but non-legal substance, factors into the reasonableness of warrantless searches and seizures where evidence of marijuana is present. 

On April 28, 2021, the Court of Special Appeals of Maryland decided In re: D.D., holding, as a matter of first impression, that the odor of marijuana, by itself, does not provide reasonable suspicion of criminal activity, and therefore, a stop based on this circumstance alone is unreasonable under the Fourth Amendment.

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Modern Family Law: Who Gets the Frozen Pre-Embryos?

By Derek Stikeleather

With the increasing use of cryogenic preservation in fertility treatments (and thousands of Maryland divorces every year), it was only a matter of time before Maryland’s appellate courts would need to create a framework for resolving custody disputes over frozen pre-embryos. That time arrived last month when the Court of Special Appeals handed down its reported decision in Jocelyn P. v. Joshua P., No. 2125, September Term, 2019. It is the first Maryland appellate decision to “examine how to determine the rights of parties, upon dissolution of their marriage or partnership, in a pre-embryo that they jointly created and cryopreserved.”[1]

The court adopted a hybrid test that first looks to the intent of the parties in any relevant prior agreement—focusing on their actual intent instead of boilerplate recitations in form contracts prepared by fertility-treatment centers and storage labs—before applying a multi-factor balancing test. If the parties did not have a (non-boilerplate) “express agreement, courts should seek to balance the competing interests under the following factors: (1) the intended use of the frozen pre-embryos by the party seeking to preserve them; (2) the reasonable ability of a party seeking implantation to have children through other means; (3) the parties’ original reasons for undergoing IVF, which may favor preservation over disposition; (4) the potential burden on the party seeking to avoid becoming a genetic parent; (5) either party’s bad faith and attempt to use the frozen pre-embryo as leverage in the divorce proceeding; and (6) other considerations relevant the parties’ unique situation.[2]

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Breached NDA renders a $20 million verdict, but only a $1 judgment

By Brad McCullough

In the last few years, we’ve heard a lot about non-disclosure agreements or “NDAs.” They are commonly used to protect against disclosure of confidential business information or financial data and similar types of highly sensitive information. Sometimes the question arises, what happens if someone breaches an NDA? In a recent Maryland case, the answer had a whipsaw-like quality, as a jury returned a $20,000,000 verdict only to see the trial judge reduce the award to $1. In an opinion written by Judge Steven Gould, and joined by fellow panelists Judge Gregory Wells and Senior Judge James Eyler, the Court of Special Appeals affirmed that drastic reduction. Adcor Indus, Inc. v. Beretta U.S.A. Corp., No. 0118, Sept. Term, 2019 (Md. Ct. Spec. App. April 1, 2021).

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