By order of Maryland’s highest court, District Court commissioners at 8 a.m. Tuesday began telling people awaiting their initial bail hearing that they have the right to an attorney and if they could not afford a lawyer, one would be appointed for them.
“We have appointed attorneys at every location,” more than 40 across the state, Chief District Court Judge John P. Morrissey said. Morrissey monitored implementation of the first day of the Court of Appeals’ order at one location, the Prince George’s County Jail in Upper Marlboro. “We’ve had very few glitches today.”
The glitches involved brief delays as appointed attorneys and the commissioners acclimate themselves to the additional level of representation the high court found necessary in its landmark decision last year in DeWolfe v. Richmond, Morrissey said.
In that Sept. 25 ruling, the court said arrested individuals have a state constitutional right to counsel at initial bail hearings before commissioners.
As a result, commissioners have the additional duties of informing arrestees of their right to an attorney and conducting a questionnaire to determine if they qualify as indigent under governmental poverty guidelines.
Attorneys, who may be accustomed to appearing before a judge, will now be addressing a commissioner at an earlier stage in the process.
“There’s going to be a learning curve [for] everybody involved,” Morrissey said, using his own experience as a young District Court judge as an example.
Morrissey, who joined the bench in 2006, said he was very slow at first when reviewing a commissioner’s decision regarding bail.
“I got much better at it by the time I did my thousandth bail review,” he said, adding quickly that it would not take commissioners and lawyers that long to become acclimated.
However, Morrissey said only time will provide sufficient data for the Maryland Judiciary to determine how much time attorney-assisted initial bail hearings will last in light of the many variables involved in ensuring the arrested individuals’ right to counsel.
“The unknown is how long the attorneys will take, how many people are coming in and how many are waiving” the right to counsel, Morrissey said. Maryland has “no historical data on this,” he added.
A Maryland Judiciary spokeswoman said Tuesday afternoon that such data would not be immediately available.
Commissioner Markisha Gross, who serves at the detention center, said early Tuesday afternoon that she looks forward to the additional duties as “fun” and “something different.”
Gross, who has been a commissioner for 13 years, added that having an attorney present at initial hearings will “probably make the job easier.”
People often try to plead their cases during the initial appearances, unaware that the commissioner’s duty is not to determine guilt or innocence but only whether to keep a detainee should be kept in custody, allowed out on bail or released on his or her own recognizance, Gross said. Attorneys, at least, understand the commissioner’s limited role, she added.
Gross, who serves as an administrative commissioner, said her job also requires “making sure everything runs smoothly.” She said she has instructed the commissioners under her to “make sure [the arrestees] understand all those advisements” regarding the right to counsel.
At the detention center just after noon on Tuesday, arrested individuals were seen discussing their indigency status with commissioners. The arrestees and commissioners were separated by what resembled a ticket window at a movie theater.
Later, an arrestee was seen seated at a similar window with his lawyer standing next to him. At the end of the hall, three detention center security guards keeping watch.
The attorneys who represent the criminal suspects at the initial hearings are appointed by the Maryland Judiciary from a signup list that numbers more than 2,500 lawyers and continues to grow, Morrissey said.
While lawyers volunteer for the assignment, they are paid $50 an hour for their time.
Morrissey said his goal is to ensure coverage at the more than 153,000 initial bail hearings before commissioners at 41 locations throughout the state annually.
In April, the General Assembly earmarked $10 million from the Judiciary’s fiscal 2015 budget for the appointment of counsel at initial hearings. That money became available on Tuesday, the first day of fiscal 2015.
APPOINTED ATTORNEYS PROGRAM
Must be a Maryland-licensed attorney in good standing and not subject to any disciplinary proceedings.
Appointees must attend the program’s training session and release the District Court, its judges, commissioners, employees and agents from any liability.
$50/hour plus reimbursement for mileage and tolls. Lawyers may also volunteer their time.
153,000 initial bail hearings annually at 41 locations.