ELKTON — A Cecil County man caught with almost a quarter-ounce of heroin near North East in September received a three-year prison term Tuesday, after accepting a binding plea deal.
Cecil County Circuit Court Administrative Judge Keith A. Baynes imposed an eight-year sentence on the defendant, Christopher Mark Garland, 29, of the 400 block of Champlain Road in the Lakeside Mobile Home Park near North East, and suspended five years it, in accordance with the binding plea agreement.
The judge did so after Garland — wearing a protective face mask and appearing on a closed-circuit television monitor in the courtroom — pleaded guilty to possession of heroin with intent to distribute. Garland participated remotely and electronically in Tuesday’s courtroom proceeding from the Cecil County Detention Center, where he is an inmate, to avoid the spread of the coronavirus.
Also in line with the binding plea agreement, Baynes ordered Garland to serve three years of supervised probation, which will include drug treatment and counseling, after completing his three-year term in a Maryland Department of Corrections prison.
Garland will remain in the county jail, where he has been held without bond since his indictment-related arrest in February, until a coronavirus-related order prohibiting the transfer of Maryland inmates from one jail or prison to another is lifted, Baynes advised Garland from the bench.
The guilty plea and the sentence carried out on Tuesday reflect a binding plea agreement reached by Assistant State’s Attorney Robert Sentman and Garland’s defense lawyer, Kevin B. Urick, both of whom were present in the courtroom with Baynes during Tuesday’s hearing. As part of the plea bargain, prosecutors dropped nine related charges against Garland.
In a binding plea agreement, the plea, the sentence length and the period of probation are predetermined by the prosecutor and the defense attorney who negotiated the deal, and then the judge simply carries out the terms of that agreement.
Because the judge is bound by the terms of the binding plea agreement and, therefore, cannot levy a sentence that is higher or lower than the penalty negotiated by the lawyers involved in the case, there is no need for the defense to present character witnesses and other mitigation testimony and evidence.
That’s one of the reasons court officials were able conduct Garland’s plea hearing and sentencing — marking one of the few criminal proceedings that have occurred in Cecil County Circuit Court since the COVID-19 pandemic prompted Chief Judge of the Maryland Court of Appeals Mary Ellen Barbera to close all courthouses in the state to the general public — with limited exceptions — on March 17. That “restricted emergency operations” status remains in effect until June 5.
Hundreds of criminal and civil hearings have been postponed in Cecil County during the past seven weeks, as a result. Because court officials stopped summoning jurors in mid-March — the directive prohibits jury trials — there has been no Cecil County Circuit Court jury trials in criminal and civil cases in nearly two months. And with a few exceptions, plea proceedings and sentence hearings also stopped on March 17.
(The directive allows for proceedings only in emergency matters, such a bail review hearings — which have been conducted remotely on close-circuit television for several years in Cecil County — protective order cases and such.)
“We’ve had a handful,” Baynes told the Cecil Whig, referring to plea hearings that have taken place in Cecil County since Maryland courthouse were placed on restricted emergency operations some seven weeks ago.
Maryland State Police investigators arrested Garland on Sept. 10, while conducting a “crime suppression” initiative in a wooded area known as “the cut” between Erie Court in Lakeside Mobile Home Park and the Northeast Plaza shopping center, according to court records.
Troopers spotted Garland talking to a woman at that location, police reported.
“Upon seeing investigators, (Garland) got up and walked approximately eight feet away, leaned over, placing something on the ground, and then walked back,” court records show.
Investigators walked over to the spot where Garland had placed the items on the ground, and they saw a plastic bag containing six smaller bags containing substances, according to court records, which further indicate that they also found a digital scale.
During a pat search after arresting Garland, investigators also confiscated a glass smoking device and four ziplock baggies marked “8 ball,” police reported.
Three of the plastic baggies seized by police contained a total of 6.9 grams of suspect heroin, court records show. (There are seven grams in a quarter-ounce.) During Tuesday’s hearing, Sentman reported that the substance was analyzed at a crime lab and was determined to be heroin.
(Relating to charges that were dropped as part of the binding plea agreement, investigators also confiscated small amounts of crystal methamphetamine, crack cocaine and powder cocaine, court records show.)
After waiving his right to remain silent, Garland gave a “full confession” to investigators, telling them that he owned the drugs and intended to sell them, according to court records.