Baltimore City Judge Extends Right to Counsel

Baltimoreskyline.jpgBaltimore City Circuit Court Judge Alfred Nance ruled earlier this month that criminal defendants have a Sixth Amendment right to counsel at initial bail hearings for individuals arrested on criminal charges. Although the ruling has been stayed pending a possible appeal, the decision could have a dramatic effect on criminal proceedings in Maryland.

The decision arose after a group of indigent criminal defendants filed a class action lawsuit claiming that their Sixth Amendment right to counsel was being impinged upon by the denial of court-appointed attorneys at the initial bail hearing stage of the proceedings. The Court in its ruling relied in large part on a recent United States Supreme Court decision, Rothgery v. Gillespie, County, Texas. In that decision, the Supreme Court held that an initial appearance where a judicial officer assesses bail constitutes a prosecutorial event, and that the Sixth Amendment right to counsel applies.

The decision could overturn the current bail system in Maryland. As the system presently works, criminal defendants taken into custody and charged in district court are not provided with an attorney at the time of their arrest. Following arrest, the defendant is brought to a commissioner within 24 hours for a determination of whether bail should be set, and whether probable cause exists in order to continue to detain the individual. Under this system, the unrepresented defendant must, without being told of the risk of self-incrimination, convince the commissioner that his or her present situation, including employment and family circumstances, warrants either immediate release or a reasonably-achievable bail.

The initial bail hearing is a critical stage in a criminal proceeding. As Judge Nance stated in his opinion, “[u]ltimately, the initial bail hearing determines whether a defendant will be allowed to retain, or forced to surrender, his liberty during the pendency of his criminal case.” The failure of a criminal defendant to obtain experienced representation as the as soon as the criminal process begins can have dire consequences for the defendant, including the unnecessary loss of his or her freedom.

Brassel, Alexander & Rice has experienced Maryland criminal defense attorneys who will ensure that your rights are protected should you find yourself a defendant in criminal proceedings.