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Barbera’s COVID order trumped right to trial within 180 days, Md. appeals court rules

Barbera’s COVID order trumped right to trial within 180 days, Md. appeals court rules

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The state’s chief judge, Mary Ellen Barbera, had issued an administrative order that suspended criminal trials during the COVID-19 pandemic. (The Daily Record/File Photo)

An administrative order that suspended criminal trials during the COVID-19 pandemic validly placed on hold the statutory right of defendants transferred from other states to be tried within 180 days, Maryland’s second-highest court ruled last week.

The Appellate Court also held that a trial erroneously scheduled beyond the 180-day statutory deadline may later be rescheduled to a complying date — or not — so long as the change is made or lack of compliance explained before the 180th day.

The court’s reported decision was a double defeat for a prisoner in New York who was brought to Maryland to stand trial on a burglary charge for which he was ultimately convicted.

Michael Timberlake was found guilty after a circuit court judge denied his motion to dismiss the charge because his trial was scheduled beyond the 180-day statutory deadline.

Upholding the conviction, the Maryland Appellate Court rejected Timberlake’s argument that the Interstate Agreement on Detainers Act’s 180-day deadline for a trial trumped the administrative order issued by Mary Ellen Barbera, who was then Maryland’s top judge.

The order rendered Timberlake functionally and administratively “unable to stand trial,” which is a statutory exception to IADA’s 180-day deadline, the court said.

“We have little trouble concluding that the COVID-related court closures ordered by … Barbera constitute another example of administrative unavailability” under the IADA, Chief Judge E. Gregory Wells wrote for the Appellate Court. “The circuit court’s determination that Timberlake was administratively unavailable to stand trial due to the court closures during a worldwide pandemic was implicit.”

The appeals court also rejected Timberlake’s argument that the 180-day “Hicks” deadline for a trial is violated once the start date is initially and erroneously set, regardless of any later correction or explanation.

The court said defendants cannot claim their right to a jury trial within 180 days was violated until the 180 days have passed. Thus, a judge has time before the 180th day to reschedule the trial or provide good cause why the deadline will be missed.

In Timberlake’s case, the reason his trial was scheduled beyond the 180 days was explained at a hearing held just 11 days after the schedule was set.

“There was still time for the administrative judge to make a good cause finding justifying postponement beyond the 180 days, or, to move the trial to within the 180 days if he found good cause to be lacking,” Wells wrote.

“We have found no cases and Timberlake points to none where our appellate courts have affirmed the grant of a motion to dismiss based on Hicks made before the expiration of the 180-day period,” Wells added. “In fact, in each of the cases we have reviewed dealing with motions to dismiss for alleged Hicks violations, the motion to dismiss (successful or otherwise) was made after the expiration of 180 days.”

Timberlake’s appellate attorney, Amy Brennan, did not immediately return a message Wednesday seeking comment on the decision and whether there are any plans to seek review by the Maryland Supreme Court. Brennan is an assistant Maryland public defender.

The Maryland Attorney General’s Office declined to comment.

Timberlake was being detained in New York for having allegedly violated his District of Columbia probation when he was served with a Maryland warrant based on a burglary charge in Howard County. He sent a letter to the Howard County State’s Attorney’s office requesting a trial there pursuant to the IADA.

The letter was received on Oct. 16, 2019, starting the 180-day clock that required him to be tried by April 13, 2020, under the IADA, according to the Appellate Court’s opinion.

Timberlake was transferred to Maryland custody on Nov. 22, 2019, and his attorney entered his appearance Dec. 19, starting a 180-day clock under a separate state law that would have required a trial by June 8, 2020.

A Howard County Circuit Court judge scheduled the trial for March 25, 2020, a plan that had to be abandoned when Barbera ordered criminal trials suspended as of March 16.

On Aug. 12, 2020, Timberlake filed a motion to have the burglary charge dismissed for failure to be tried within 180 days under the IADA, Barbera’s order notwithstanding.

On Sept. 11, 2020, the court scheduled Timberlake’s trial for Feb. 1, 2021, despite an adjusted 180-day deadline of Jan. 29, 2021.

On Sept. 16, 2020, the court denied Timberlake’s dismissal motion, saying Barbera’s order had trumped the IADA and suspended the 180-day clock.

At a Sept. 22, 2020, scheduling hearing, the court kept the trial date at Feb. 1 and explained for the first time that the late date was necessary due to COVID-19 closures.

Timberlake subsequently pleaded not guilty but agreed to a statement of facts, upon with the circuit court judge found him guilty of first-degree burglary.

He was sentenced to 15 years in prison, with all but four years suspended. He was also given credit for the 1,038 days he had spent in pretrial detention.

Timberlake then sought review by the Appellate Court, arguing in vain that the burglary charge should have been dismissed.

Judges Kathryn Grill Graeff and Douglas R.M. Nazarian joined Wells’ opinion.

The Appellate Court rendered its decision in Michael Herman Timberlake v. State of Maryland, No. 585 September Term 2022.

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