By JOE PALAZZOLO, Capital News Service
WASHINGTON - A high-profile Baltimore law firm has joined a University of Maryland law professor and his students to demand that suspects have a lawyer present when they first appear before a District Court commissioner.
The suit, brought Monday to the Circuit Court for Baltimore City by Venable LLP, "seeks to call attention to the reality that any person arrested in Maryland should not expect legal counsel when they first appear before a judicial officer," said Doug Colbert, a University of Maryland at Baltimore law professor assisting Venable's attorneys.
Venable is representing 12 plaintiffs, all of whom were unable to afford attorneys and were denied requests for public defenders during their bail hearings at Baltimore's Central Booking and Intake System, according to the complaint.
The issue impacts the poor the most, the law firm and professor said.
"The prosecuting attorney has the opportunity to be present and to influence a commissioner's position, so the playing field is incredibly uneven," Colbert said. "This impacts directly working people, and people with limited resources. With a lawyer you stand a much greater chance of convincing a judge or commissioner that your will return to court."
A 2002 study by Colbert, criminologist Ray Paternoster of the University of Maryland at College Park, and Shawn D. Bushway of the University of Albany found that suspects are 2 1/2 times more likely to be released with a defense lawyer present and that poor people suffer disproportionately without legal representation.
"Without counsel, many poor and lower-income people charged with non-violent misdemeanor charges remain in jail on unaffordable bail for days, weeks and months before returning to court and being assigned appointed counsel," the report concluded.
The U.S. Supreme Court has never ruled whether the constitutional right to counsel includes the bail stage.
In 2004, The Maryland Court of Appeals ruled that a bail review hearing was not "a critical phase" of pretrial proceedings, and so a defendant's Sixth Amendment right to counsel wasn't yet in play.
Colbert said the suit addresses initial bail hearings and that the Maryland General Assembly guaranteed defendants legal counsel in all pretrial hearings in a statute called the Public Defenders Act.
"The Maryland Legislature has acted and provided for a statutory right to counsel from the first time a person appears before a judicial officer through to trial and appeal," Colbert said.
The Maryland Attorney General's office declined to comment because the case is pending.
The Maryland Office of the Public Defender released a statement Tuesday saying it "is supportive of defendants receiving all of the rights guaranteed to them under the Bill of Rights."
The Venable suit branched from the work of University of Maryland law students, who have been representing defendants at bail review hearings in Baltimore for the past eight years, Colbert said.
No date has been set for the hearing.