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DeWolfe seeks suspension of misdemeanor proceedings

Public defender cites risk of COVID-19 spread

Maryland’s rules on setting bail and other pretrial conditions are relatively liberal but are not applied that way, Public Defender Paul B. DeWolfe says. “In practice, amounts of money are [selected] randomly,” he said. “Setting of bail is really all over the map in Maryland.” (Maximilian Franz/The Daily Record)

Chief Public Defender Paul B. DeWolfe is calling on the state’s chief judge to suspend misdemeanor trial proceedings for non-incarcerated defendants, saying the dockets are leading to the spread of COVID-19. (The Daily Record/File Photo)

Chief Maryland Public Defender Paul B. DeWolfe called on the state’s top jurist Monday to suspend misdemeanor trial proceedings in district court for all non-incarcerated defendants, except those alleging domestic violence, due to the possibility of exposure to COVID-19 in the tight confines of a courtroom.

“District court dockets are superspreader events,” DeWolfe wrote in a letter to Maryland Court of Appeals Chief Judge Mary Ellen Barbera. “Attorneys, defendants, judicial staff and others appearing at these proceedings are indoors for extended periods of time in contravention to the now-universal guidelines to avoid such interactions unless essential. Even with social distancing practices, district courts throughout the state are crowded, especially at the security entrances and in the hallways.”

A spokesperson said the Maryland Judiciary had no comment on DeWolfe’s request.

DeWolfe’s letter followed Barbera’s Nov. 13 order suspending all jury trials in circuit court through the end of the year to stanch the spread of the resurgent COVID-19 virus. DeWolfe said that order should be extended to district court proceedings in which the defendant is not being held pretrial unless the case involves allegations of domestic violence.

“As COVID cases have risen statewide, our attorneys and clients are increasingly contracting the coronavirus based on unnecessary and avoidable court proceedings for minor offenses that would never result in incarceration,” DeWolfe wrote.

“In addition to the individual health repercussions, court-based COVID transmissions have resulted in widespread quarantining as well as heightened anxiety and fears,” DeWolfe added. “The dangers and costs posed by the courtroom contact is far greater than the offenses alleged. Cases that do not result in pretrial incarceration lack the danger or urgency to warrant the current health risks.”

DeWolfe cited specifically the minor “nuisance” crimes of disorderly conduct, trespassing, shoplifting and urinating in public, as well as the traffic offenses of driving with a suspended license.

“While we believe that some of these low level misdemeanors should simply be dismissed, postponement until in-court proceedings are safe is a reasonable middle position that should be required statewide,” DeWolfe wrote, adding that the District Court in Baltimore has already suspended trial proceedings for non-incarcerated defendants except for domestic violence cases.

“If it (Baltimore) can effectively postpone all cases not involving incarcerated defendants it seems that the district courts throughout the state can and should follow suit,” DeWolfe wrote.

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