Maryland residents now have right to attorney at bail hearings

People now have the right to public defenders when appearing before Maryland District Court Commissioners for bail hearings.

As of July 1, 2014, those who are arrested in Maryland have the right to have an attorney present when they appear before a District Court Commissioner for a bail determination. A 2013 appellate court decision led the state to recognize people's right to counsel in all situations when an officer of the court is determining bail.

Appellate court decision

The change in state policy results from the appellate court's September 2013 decision in the case DeWolfe v. Richmond. The state's head public defender brought suit on behalf of some people who had been arrested for " serious offenses," alleging that they were denied access to public defenders when they appeared before District Court Commissioners for their bail hearings. They argued that these hearings are a critical part of the legal process because a Commissioner reviews the evidence to determine whether there was probable cause to arrest, whether a person is detained or released on bail and the amount of bail - if any - a person needs to post for release.

The suit argued that the Sixth Amendment of the U.S. Constitution, Article 21 of the Maryland Declaration of Rights and the state's Public Defender Act all required the state to provide people with attorneys when appearing before Commissioners if people could not afford their own lawyers. Similarly, the suit alleged that the denial of counsel violated Article 24 of the Maryland Declaration of Rights and the due process protections provided in the Fourteenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution.

The court agreed that the due process component of Article 24 of Maryland's Declaration of Rights necessitated state-provided counsel for indigent people appearing before District Court Commissioners.

Legislative response

The state legislature had to determine how to implement the court's decision. The legislature was charged with finding a way to fund the approximately 177,000 hearings that are held before Commissioners each year. After some debate, the legislature allocated $10 million in funding from the state's 2014-15 budget for more public defenders.

Commissioners now need to tell people appearing before them of the right to counsel, as well as go through a questionnaire to determine whether people qualify for a public defender.

Speak with an attorney

The fact that the state has recognized the critical role that bail hearings play in the criminal justice process underscores the importance of having a skilled lawyer's representation at every stage of the process when a person is facing criminal charges. Having an attorney involved early on can help ensure that your rights are not violated and help you mount the best defense possible. If you are facing criminal charges, seek the assistance of a seasoned criminal defense attorney as soon as you can.

Keywords: criminal defense; criminal law; arrest; bail