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City to add a step for criminal complaints

State’s Attorney Gregg L. Bernstein

People who bring a criminal complaint to a Maryland District Court commissioner in Baltimore will soon have to meet with a prosecutor within a few days of lodging the charges or risk having the case dropped before trial, according to a plan announced Wednesday by two of the city’s newest criminal justice leaders.

Judge John R. Hargrove Jr., who became the city district court’s administrative judge a year ago, and State’s Attorney Gregg L. Bernstein, who took office in January, say the new policy will lighten the caseload of minor disputes between neighbors and family members and benefit crime victims by allowing prosecutors more time to work on the most deserving claims.

Similar polices already are in place in Baltimore County and Montgomery County. The city hopes to implement its version in June.

“It’s never existed in Baltimore ever,” Hargrove said. “This would be brand new.”

There are still details to be worked out, “but it is going to happen,” said the judge. “Everybody’s too excited about it.”

Senior members of Bernstein’s office proposed the idea to Hargrove at a meeting Tuesday, and the judge mentioned it at Wednesday’s meeting of the Baltimore City Criminal Justice Coordinating Council.

After the midday gathering, Bernstein called the idea a “game changer” and predicted a “dramatic impact” on his office’s caseload.

“I think this is huge,” Bernstein said. “It will weed out cases that shouldn’t have been brought in the first place or that have serious proof problems.”

Under the current system, Hargrove explained, a citizen brings the complaint to a court commissioner, who determines whether there is probable cause to proceed. If so, the commissioner issues a summons or a warrant. A summons comes with a trial date, usually about a month after the summons is issued; in a warrant case, an arrest must be made before a trial date is set.

A prosecutor receives notice of the charges but probably won’t meet with the complainant until just before trial. At that point, the case might have to be postponed or dropped altogether, leaving the complainant disappointed, Hargrove said.

“They absolutely don’t have to meet with anybody” under the present system, Hargrove said of citizen complainants’ pretrial obligations. “The new process would require, highlight require,” that they meet with a prosecutor within days to assess the viability of the case.

There still will be disagreements between complainants and prosecutors about the merit of a case, but “that’s always going to be the prosecution’s problem,” Hargrove said.

Exactly how long the complainant will have and how the state’s attorney’s office will make prosecutors available at the city’s three district courthouses are details that still need to be determined, Hargrove and Bernstein said. But legitimate crime victims have nothing to fear from the policy change, whatever form it takes.

“It forces my office to focus on the cases much earlier,” Bernstein said. “It has the added benefit for those cases that are meritorious and should go forward; [they’ll] be better prepared.”