Public Defender Order Delayed

BERLIN — A recent Maryland Court of Appeals opinion guaranteeing legal representation for defendants at the earliest stages of criminal proceedings, including initial bail reviews, has been put on hold after the high court agreed to slow down the order to further review the implementation process.

In its opinion released in early January, the high court ruled even the earliest bail review hearing represents a potentially critical stage in the criminal process and that a defendant has a right to public defender representation.

While defendants have always been entitled to representation at every stage of a criminal proceeding against them, many are not represented at initial bail hearings and bond reviews.

As a result of the court’s ruling, the state will now be required to have public defenders readily available to indigent arrestees at every stage of a criminal proceeding, which could cost state and local governments millions of dollars.

In Worcester County alone, statistics show 4,513 arrestees had initial appearances before District Court Commissioners in 2011, including 2,857 in weekdays and another 1,656 on weekends, and most of those detainees would be eligible for public defender representation at the earliest bail review hearings under the appeals court’s order.

However, the high court’s ruling which was set to take effect last week, came without an implementation plan, prompting an effort to stall the decision, on multiple fronts.

Shortly after the Court of Appeals issued the order in early January, Delegate Mike McDermott (R-38B) introduced emergency legislation to slow down the implementation process.

“Involving defense attorneys and state’s attorneys at the commissioner level will change the nature of these hearings and add longer wait times,” he said. “This will mean keeping police tied up with prisoners for extended periods. The bill seeks to answer the problem and could save to state and county governments tens of millions of dollars if passed.”

While most agree with the concept of providing representation for detainees at each critical stage in a prosecution, the overwhelming sentiment is that the high court’s order was long on principle and short on practical solutions. To that end, the state’s Standing Committee on Rules of Practice and Procedure last week successfully argued in favor of a reconsideration of the order, at least until its implementation could be resolved. A hearing is set for next Thursday, pushing back the start date for about two weeks.