A longtime Maryland defense lawyer was sentenced to six months in jail Thursday for soliciting a minor for sex, concluding a case that turned on an online police sting and stunned the local legal community.
Michael D. Dobbs, 57, stood solemnly as the judgment was announced in a courthouse in Montgomery County, just north of Washington, where he had practiced for three decades. He was given three weeks to report to jail so he can continue closing his law practice.
“Mr. Dobbs, as you well know — maybe more than anybody else in this room — this is a serious case, serious impact,” Circuit Judge Richard Jordan said, speaking before Dobbs and about 75 of his friends and family members, including two adult daughters, his wife, and his 85-year-old mother.
Prosecutors had asked for six months in jail. Dobbs’s attorney wanted probation.
The case against Dobbs — who before doing defense work was a prosecutor — began on a Thursday afternoon seven months ago after he looked through personal ads on Craigslist. He spotted one he liked and began trading emails with someone he thought was a young man interested in sex.
“Are you cool,” the Craigslist poster asked, “with me being 15?”
In imposing the sentence, Jordan said he would recommend that Dobbs be allowed to serve part of his time at the Montgomery County Pre-Release Center, a halfway house that allows leaving during the day for work and treatment programs. Dobbs’s attorney has said that Dobbs probably will not be allowed to practice law again.
The Craigslist poster was a police officer posing as “Brandon,” who wrote that he wanted to try new things sexually and that his father was upset about his homosexuality. Dobbs initially expressed caution, and he offered advice about Maryland’s age of consent laws, according to court records.
But Dobbs soon was engaged in a string of graphic and explicit text exchanges about what sex acts he and a 15-year-old boy could engage in. He ultimately agreed to meet “Brandon” in a parking lot outside a rock-climbing business near his law office, with a plan to drive to the boy’s home, where he lived with his mother, who was said to be working a double shift, and they could be alone.
Dobbs instead was seized by undercover officers waiting in the parking lot.
News of Dobbs’s arrest shocked his colleagues.
Not only did it not square with their impressions of him, but it also made little sense. How could a defense lawyer and former prosecutor, who would be aware of techniques employed by detectives, get into that kind of trouble?
From the bench, the judge spoke of the importance of such police work — saying the Internet makes it easy for adults to prey on children and makes it difficult for those adults to be caught.
He said the investigation that snared Dobbs was not entrapment, because entrapment mandates a target have his will overcome.
“This case has numerous facts that speak loudly that will was not overcome,” Jordan said. “The opportunity was provided, and the opportunity was grabbed.”
If anything, the judge said, Dobbs should feel lucky that he was caught in a sting, where he had only thought he was about to meet a 15-year-old.
“If there had been a real 15-year-old there,” the boy “may not recover from this for the rest of his life,” Jordan said.
Just before 2 p.m. Thursday, Dobbs entered the courtroom with his attorney, David Felsen.
He walked to the defense table, not unfamiliar to him, and took a seat to the right of Felsen: typically the defendant’s chair.
The hearing began with Felsen saying that Dobbs should not be jailed and that he needed continued counseling and treatment for sex addiction, alcohol abuse and depression that led him into “out of control” behavior.
“We all have demons,” Felsen said. “Some of our demons are things that we can control. Some of our demons are things that we have significant difficulty controlling.”
Adding to the portrait of Dobbs’s life beyond the charge, his mother, Josephine Dobbs, stood, walking slowly with a cane to the well of the courtroom. Two others flanked her.
“I am Michael’s mother,” she said, her voice shaky in the otherwise silent courtroom. “Michael has come to the house and helped me with so many things that I can’t do. . . . I need him.”
She spoke about her son having to tell his family members and friends what happened, and his being direct about it, saying: “He’s been upfront with everybody, and I think that ought to be taken into consideration. Thank you.”
Dobbs’s wife, Barbara Dobbs, addressed the judge as the couple’s two adult daughters bolstered her with their arms on her back and shoulder. She told Jordan that she supports her husband and that, despite years of struggle, they are committed to their marriage.
Dobbs wiped his eyes with a tissue.
“The reason I want to speak is to let you know that he’s been the most wonderful husband, and such a good father for our two daughters,” she said. “He’s always there to help out with neighbors, help build a shed or a deck, and in general, once he meets a friend, they’re friends for life.”
Dobbs also spoke in court.
“First and foremost, I do want to say how truly sorry I am for my behavior,” he said. “It’s not just shocking and embarrassing, but it’s also wrong, and I recognize that.”
He thanked his family for backing him, choking up as he spoke.
Dobbs also shared a self-deprecating memory from shortly after his arrest.
While in a van moving from one jail to another, he found himself riding with a client. “That’s awkward to explain,” Dobbs recalled. “He was kind of confused — ‘Oh, you’re going to go visit someone.’ And obviously I’m handcuffed, and I’m stuck in the truck and I’m trying to explain to him that no, I wasn’t going to visit a client.”
According to court records, after Dobbs learned that “Brandon” was 15, he initially offered advice.
“How about we keep in touch, we can chat, you can run problems by me. And if you do decide to meet someone now, I am here to remind you to never consent to have sex without a condom. Even if your partner says he is clean and shows you papers of recent tests, it’s not worth it. So keep in touch, OK?”
Later, the text messages became explicit, interspersed with less graphic asides.
“I’m running into a meeting,” Dobbs wrote March 8, followed a day later with: “I’d like our first meeting to be spontaneous — another good SAT word.”
Montgomery prosecutors, citing a possible conflict of interest, asked prosecutors from neighboring Howard County to take the case.
On June 15, Dobbs pleaded guilty to sexual solicitation of a minor, which makes it illegal to “command, authorize, urge, entice, request or advise . . . a minor, or a law enforcement officer posing as a minor, to engage in activities.”