DENTON — A Caroline County man’s recent guilty plea to a rare charge of attempted suicide raised eyebrows, as some said it appeared the county was prosecuting people suffering from mental illness, but Caroline County Interim State’s Attorney Joseph Riley said the plea and resulting suspended sentence was in the best interest of public safety, as it disqualifies the man from owning a firearm.
“I do not apologize for our efforts to prevent a person from possessing firearms and potentially causing great harm not only to (himself) but others as well,” Riley said, Tuesday, Feb. 27, five days after the man entered the guilty plea in Caroline County District Court.
Still, Riley said, his office has asked district court commissioners to refrain from using the charge in future cases.
The case stemmed from an incident in October 2016, when Maryland State Police and the Caroline County Sheriff’s Office responded to a home for a report of an intoxicated man, in possession of a firearm, threatening to kill himself.
When police arrived on the scene, the 56-year-old man was being held down by another person, but trying to reach a nearby loaded Remington shotgun. A spent round was on the ground.
Police said the man was taken for an emergency evaluation, and 12 firearms and other dangerous weapons, all belonging to the man, were removed from the home.
The next day, the man was charged by a Caroline County District Court commissioner with reckless endangerment, alcoholic beverage intoxication endangerment and attempted suicide, a state common law crime.
Riley said district court commissioners are not required to consult with the prosecutor’s office before filing charges, nor does he think they should be.
That same day, a temporary protective order was issued against the man, which ordered, among other things, he surrender all of his firearms and not possess any more for the duration of the 12-month order.
Riley said at that time, his office moved to place the three charges against the man to the inactive docket, on the condition that he undergo a mental health assessment and recommended treatment, abstain from alcohol and illegal drugs and not possess any firearms. The man agreed to the terms.
In September 2017, the man was found near a vehicle, in which was found numerous dangerous weapons — a machete, billy clubs, batons and brass knuckles — as well as a box of ammo and a spent shotgun round. The vehicle was parked across from Queen Anne’s County High School.
The man was charged in Queen Anne’s County with two counts of a dangerous weapon on school property and one count of a concealed dangerous weapon.
Riley said his office became aware of the new charges when they were formally filed in November 2017. He said a prosecutor from the Queen Anne’s County State’s Attorney’s Office told him the man had been acting erratically and threatening others when he appeared in district court there.
The presence of the ammo and spent round in the car meant the man most likely also had a firearm, Riley said, in violation of his agreement with the Caroline County State’s Attorney’s Office. Further, he was found with the weapons and ammo near a school.
“This office was then faced with a potentially violent person to others, not just to himself alone,” Riley said.
Riley said the three Caroline County charges against the man were then removed from the inactive docket, and a trial date was set.
In January, the man appeared in Queen Anne’s County District Court, where he pleaded guilty to the count of possessing a concealed dangerous weapon, and was given three years of supervised probation.
Three weeks later, on Feb. 22, the man appeared in Caroline County District Court, with counsel, where he pleaded guilty to the attempted suicide charge.
He was given a suspended three-year sentence, and two years of supervised probation.
All other charges in both Caroline and Queen Anne’s counties were discontinued.
Riley said the case received attention for two reasons.
One is the novelty of the charge, a holdover from Maryland’s early colonial days, when it still used the English Common Law system, which then considered suicide a crime.
The law has never been repealed or revised in Maryland, though it is has rarely been used.
“I admit I have not seen it charged before,” Riley said.
Riley said the second reason for the attention is the perception the county is prosecuting people who are mentally ill.
“A person with mental health issues is not necessarily someone who would be found not criminally responsible in the legal sense,” Riley said.
Riley said the office’s actions all had one primary focus — protecting the citizens of the county.
“We did not proceed maliciously or with malfeasance,” Riley said.