Maryland Court Finds a Right to Represenation at Initial Appearance

This morning, the Maryland Court of Appeals ruled that, under the Public Defender Act, all indigent defendants have a right to representation at the initial appearance before the District Court Commissioner.

Our experienced Baltimore criminal defense attorneys can handle client representation at all stages of criminal proceedings, from the initial appearance through to a court or jury trial.

The initial appearance before the District Court Commissioner is an important stage of a defendant’s exposure to the criminal justice system. At this appearance, the Commissioner tells the defendant of the charge(s) and the allowable penalties, and provides the defendant with a copy of the statement of charges. The Commissioner advises the defendant of his or her right to counsel, and of the right to a preliminary hearing. Thereafter, the Commissioner, in cases where a defendant was arrested without a warrant, determines whether there was probable cause to support the defendant’s arrest.

jail.jpg If the Commissioner determines that the defendant’s arrest was supported by probable cause, the Commissioner then determines whether the defendant is eligible for release or whether bail should be set. This determination can be vital to a defendant, as a Commissioner’s decision to impose bail, as the Court found, is summarily confirmed by a Judge at a subsequent bail review hearing. Under Maryland Rule 2-416, the Commissioner considers (1) the nature and circumstances of the offense (including the supporting evidence at the potential sentence upon conviction), (2) the defendant’s prior record of appearance at court proceedings; (3) the defendant’s family ties, employment status and history, financial resources, reputation, character and mental condition, length of residence in the community, and length of residence in this State*; (4) any recommendation of an agency that conducts pretrial release investigations; (5) any recommendation of the State’s Attorney; (6) any information presented by the defendant or defendant’s counsel; (7) the danger of the defendant to the community; (8) the danger of the defendant to himself or herself; and (9) any other relevant factor factor related to the defendant’s likelihood of appearance at trial and the risk to the safety of others, such as prior convictions. The Commissioner, applying this Rule, can and often does determine that bail should be set. If the defendant is unable to meet his bail, he or she will be held in jail until a bail review hearing, and possibly until his or her trial date.

The “Public Defender Act” is codified at section 16-201 of the Criminal Procedure Article of the Maryland Code. The Court relied on two provisions of the Public Defender Act to find the right to representation. The Court noted that under section 16-204(b)(1)(i), indigent defendants are entitled to representation in proceedings where they are alleged to have committed a “serious offense.” In section 16-204(b)(1)(iv), indigent defendants are statutorily guaranteed the right to an attorney at any other proceeding in which they face the possibility of commitment to jail. Between the two sections, all hearings before the Commissioner are covered. The former section addresses serious crime, and the latter section encompasses all other defendants, because the hearing is a determination of whether or not bail will be set; by definition, as the Commissioner may decline to release an individual on his or her own recognizance, jail is a possibility when a defendant appears before the Commissioner.

Therefore, according to the Court, all indigent defendants are entitled to representation at the initial appearance.

An attorney’s assistance at these hearings can be a tremendous value to a defendant charged with a crime, as an attorney will be well-versed in demonstrating to the Court why a “ROR” (release on recognizance) or low bail is most appropriate. An attorney can be especially vital in describing to the Commissioner the defendant’s family ties, employment status, financial resources, reputation, character, and mental state, all factors that the Commissioner considers in determining whether to set bail. Under the circumstances of an initial appearance, a defendant may not be in a frame of mind to present these factors to the Commissioner effectively; our experienced Maryland criminal defense attorneys, however, can convincingly provide the Commissioner with the facts necessary to show that the Defendant should be released, or why bail should be set at an attainable level.

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