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The Initial Appearance

ortegablogFor the last year I have been working evening shifts at the District Court Commissioner’s Office in Annapolis, Maryland, and at The Central Booking and Intake Facility in Baltimore City. After the Court of Appeals decisions in what has become known as the Richmond Decision[1], the Appointed Attorneys Program was implemented by Maryland’s Legislature in July of 2014. The Appointed Attorneys Program allows for eligible defendants to be represented by a Court Appointed Attorney at his or her Initial Appearance Hearing.[2]

As the Plaintiffs’ in Richmond argued, an attorney is extremely helpful at this stage. An attorney can not only explain the charges and offer support to the accused in a stressful situation, but he or she can also help them get the best possible pretrial release determination. Arguments challenging probable cause can lead to the accused being released on his or her own personal recognizance. Also, the attorney acts as a safe guard against potential self-incrimination. Further, there are factors that the Court considers when determining pretrial release. An experienced criminal attorney knows how to get the information they need from the client and present it to the Commissioner in a way that gets them the best possible result.

I have seen many people waive their right to counsel at these hearings over the last year, and always wondered why. Is it because they did not know the attorney was actually there waiting to help them? Are they worried the Commissioner will go harder on them if they seek the advise of counsel? Are the police pressuring them to waive this right? My experience in this program has lead me to believe that the Commissioners like hearing from attorneys, and representation has certainly never made the terms of pretrial release harsher. Having an attorney in these proceedings can only help an individual’s chances of release or obtaining a reasonable bond. My hope is that more people will exercise their right to an attorney – because I have seen first hand that it makes a difference.

Being a part of the Appointed Attorneys Program has been one of the most rewarding experiences of my career. Helping an individual in their most vulnerable moment is a gratifying experience. I am blessed to be apart of the panel of private attorneys that take the time to help people at the beginning of a potentially long and scary journey through our criminal justice system.

[1] The Court of Appeals in Dewolfe v. Richmond, 434 Md. 403 (2012), ruled that the Initial Appearance Hearing was a stage in a criminal proceeding where the presence of counsel for the determination of release would be of great assistance to the defendant. Moreover, the Court gave credence to the argument that “unrepresented suspects are more likely to have more perfunctory hearings, less likely to be released on recognizance, more likely to have higher and unaffordable bail, and more likely to serve longer detentions or to pay the expense of a bail bondman’s non-refundable 10% fee to regain their freedom.” Id. at 429. Dewolfe v. Richmond, 434 Md. 444 (2013) quoted these reasoning’s as well, and went on to hold that under the Due Process component of Article 24 of the Maryland Declaration of Rights, an indigent defendant has a right to State furnished counsel at an initial appearance hearing before a District Court Commissioner.

[2] The accused also can elect to have a private attorney represent him or her at the hearing. A private attorney can participate in person, by phone, or even by fax.

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