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The Joint Effort of 21 Baltimore Criminal Defense Attorneys Pays Off

The collective efforts of the Baltimore City Office of the Public Defender and the Private Criminal Defense Bar is paying off. Although the Joint Motion seeking access to Officers Laronde and Nagovich’s IAD records has not yet been fully litigated, the Baltimore City State’s Office has been steadily disposing of cases where Officer Laronde was an arresting officer, including one of Ortega Law’s clients. Since the joint motion was filed at the beginning of this year, the State has dropped 8 of the 21 cases in the still pending joint motion. Officer Laronde has also been fired from his position with the Baltimore City Police Department.

I personally feel that we could not have received a better result for our clients. I am thankful to the Baltimore City State’s Attorney’s Office and the Baltimore City Police Department for doing the right thing – ceasing to call former Officer Laronde as a witness and firing a corrupt officer who abused his powers as a police officer. I am also thankful to have joined ranks with my colleagues with the Office of the Public Defender and the Private Bar. It shows that there is strength in numbers, and that we all need to work together to continue to get good results for our clients.

Click the link below for WBALTV’s latest story involving the termination of Officer Laronde.

The Fight Against Police Misconduct From A Different Angle.

bs-md-ci-officer-suspended-20151021[1]Attorney Windy Ortega of Ortega Law, LLC, continues to fight police misconduct. Ms. Ortega recently teamed up with over 20 other criminal defense attorneys and filed a motion to gain access to two Baltimore City Police Officers’ Internal Affairs records. It is believed that these records contain prior bad acts and dishonest conduct that the Defendants on trial should have access to.


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.

Vast Changes in Maryland Domestic Violence Law

The Legislature was busy last session. It passed into law enhanced penalties for repeat DWI offenders, added new statutory crimes like home invasion, and marijuana was significantly decriminalized. Possession of less than 10 grams of marijuana is no longer a criminal offense. Domestic violence, in particular, received a significant makeover that took effect October 1, 2014.

First, and most controversial, is the now lower standard of proof required for Final Peace and Protective Orders. Before October 1st of this year, Maryland law required a showing of “clear and convincing evidence” by the Petitioner in order to obtain a Final Peace or Protective Order. The new law requires the “preponderance of the evidence” standard, which is one of the lower thresholds in the court system. This lower standard will make it easier for the Petitioner to prove allegations of abuse, and lead to more Final Protective Orders granted. Although Peace and Protective Orders are a civil remedy, the stigma associated with having a Final Peace or Protective Order in place against you is arguably greater than being found guilty of many crimes. Since the public can easily find out about the issuance of Temporary and Final Protective Orders, there is great concern by many over how it will affect their employment and everyday life should an Order be granted against them.

To illustrate the difference in required proof, let’s consider the illustration of percentages. A clear and convincing standard can easily be thought of as a Judge being 75% convinced that the alleged abuse occurred. A preponderance of the evidence standard, on the other hand, can be thought of as the Judge being about 51% sure that the alleged abuse occurred. This may not seem like a big difference to the average person, but in my opinion, and the opinion of many Maryland attorneys who also represent parties at these hearings, it is a huge difference that will most likely result in the finding of more Final Orders.

Many see the change in law as a huge step forward to fighting domestic violence. According to a Press Release on Lt. Governor Brown’s website, “Of the nearly 5,300 final peace or protective orders that were denied last year alone, 3,500 of those were because the victim could not meet the standard of “clear and convincing evidence.” This important change will ensure more victims of domestic violence have access to the protections they need.”’ (See Lt. Governor Brown’s Press Release, http://www.governor.maryland.gov/ltgovernor/pressreleases/141001.asp (last visited November 8, 2014)). According to the press release, Maryland was the only state still holding victims of domestic violence to the higher standard of “clear and convincing evidence.”

Since Peace and Protective Order Hearings are a civil proceeding, the parties involved have to seek private counsel or pro-bono legal services should they want representation. Sadly, the Office of the Public Defender is not an option for indigent Petitioners and Respondents.

The impact of the new law will most likely be that a Respondent who finds him or herself with an Order against them will face more life challenges as a result – at work, in their custody and child support cases, and even at pre-trial release determinations.

Another major change in law with regard to domestic violence is that the crime of second-degree assault will now be included among the list of crimes for which a person can obtain a final protective order. According to the Maryland State’s Attorneys Association, the majority of domestic violence cases involve second-degree assault (Maryland State Commission on Criminal Sentencing Policy, 2012). Additionally, a 2012 report showed that 94 percent of domestic violence crimes reported to the police are charged as assault (Uniform Crime Report, 2012). This new change will also help victims of domestic violence obtain that Final Order for protection with greater ease.

Lastly, the Legislature passed an enhancement regarding violent crimes that are committed in the presence of a minor in the home. A Judge may now impose an additional five years on top of the sentence for the crime itself.

The enactment of these new laws makes it clear that Maryland is getting tougher on Domestic Violence. Whether you are the Petitioner or the Respondent, you should seek the help of an experienced attorney for representation at Peace and Protective Order Hearings.

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