Appeals court hears arguments in Westminster drug case

October 05, 1994|By Capital News Service

ANNAPOLIS -- Anyone who tries to buy drugs, fake or real, breaks the law, Assistant Attorney General Gary E. Bair argued yesterday before the Maryland Court of Appeals.

Margaret L. Lanier, assistant public defender, argued the other view.

"What is impossible," she said, "is to buy drugs when your seller gives you fake drugs."

At issue in the state's highest court was whether a person can be punished for buying illegal drugs when what was purchased was merely a look-alike substance.

Peggy Sue Grill was convicted in 1992 of trying to buy heroin in Westminster from an undercover agent that year.

She appealed, arguing that buying the harmless white powder actually exchanged was not a crime.

"We say, if you're trying to commit a crime and are unsuccessful, well, you're still guilty of attempt," Mr. Bair said.

Ms. Lanier told the seven-judge court that because the final act wasn't a crime, Ms. Grill "can't be charged with attempt."

The judges interrupted both sides of oral arguments, trying to determine at what precise moment a drug transaction can be stopped and a person still be charged with the intent to commit a crime.

They also questioned whether Ms. Grill had been charged under the appropriate statute.

Prosecutors could have used either of two laws against Ms. Grill, one involving the sale of drugs, the other the sale of fake drugs or look-alike drugs.

Ms. Lanier said they should have charged her with violating the fake-drug law instead of the one governing attempt to possess controlled dangerous substances.

She said Ms. Grill did not ever actually possess anything illegal.

Carroll County Senior Assistant State's Attorney Barton F. Walker III selected the charge.

In a telephone interview yesterday, he said he reasoned that it was "better . . . in terms of leverage, to encourage the person to understand the serious nature of their crime and . . . to alter their behavior."

Conviction of trying to buy controlled substances would carry a four-year sentence and a $25,000 fine, or both. The penalty for buying a look-alike drug is one year and a $500 fine, or both.

"Clearly, she attempted to buy drugs. . . . We charged her with attempt because she tried to buy drugs," Mr. Walker said.

"We go for the maximum penalty and what we think we can prove."

Ms. Lanier argued that "we have a completed act -- over and done with -- and not a crime committed. . . . Therefore, it defies logic to force criminal liability on her."

Mr. Bair said that taking the steps to commit a crime is a crime That involves "specific intent -- and that's what you need in Maryland" for a conviction, he said.

Ms. Grill lost her appeal in the Court of Special Appeals in 1993.

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