The Impact of COVID-19 on Criminal Court Proceedings in Maryland
In the wake of the Covid-19 pandemic, the fear and uncertainty associated with being a defendant in a criminal case have been increased due to the confusion surrounding how and when your case can move forward. The Court of Appeals of Maryland has set timetable beginning with the phased closing of Maryland Courts beginning back on March 16, 2020, and continuing additional phases during which the court will slowly reopen.
What Does Reopening of the Maryland Courts System Look Like
There are a total of five (5) phases in place relating to the closing and subsequent reopening of the Maryland Courts which are as follows:
Phase I began on March 16, 2020, with the closing of all of Maryland’s District and Circuit Courts. During this phase, all Maryland Courts were closed to the public. The only types of matters that were heard in criminal court were bail reviews, petitions for habeas corpus (essentially Circuit Court bail reviews of prior denials of bail), and emergency domestic violence matters [which are not technically criminal in nature but have been deemed “emergency matters”]; all of these hearings were held remotely.
During Phase I, judges were very conscious of the danger posed to defendants and corrections staff by keeping them in small areas such as jails and prisons and were therefore exceptionally accommodating in releasing people who might not have been otherwise sent home. Many individuals who would have remained detained under normal conditions have been released with home detention/electronic monitoring. This type of “release” provides the Court and the community with some assurances as to the defendant’s whereabouts while at the same time protecting the accused from increased risk of exposure to the coronavirus associated with incarceration.
During this phase, all court clerk’s offices were closed to the public. Phase one continued until the close of business on June 5, 2020, allowing Phase II to begin on June 8, 2020.
Starting on June 8, 2020, Phase II began to permit some limited in-person hearings and some remote hearings, though as a rule, Judges have not been taking witness testimony in contested cases during this phase. While bail reviews, habeas corpus petitions and domestic violence emergencies continue from Phase I, some additional, though limited, Court activities are being allowed, and all under strict social distancing and safety rules.
While remote hearings in criminal cases are being held, these hearings are primarily for “status conferences” (which is the ongoing process of the Court attempting to ascertain the respective positions of the prosecution and the defense of ongoing criminal cases) and for approved criminal pleas, dismissals and postponements.
During this phase, the clerk's offices of all courts are still closed to the public. Phase II is scheduled to continue until July 20, 2020.
The third phase of Maryland Court scheduling is set to begin on July 20, 2020. In theory, contested trials that do not require a jury will begin, though on a limited basis and subject to the final decision by the administrative judges of each court.
Clerks' offices in the courthouses are scheduled to open to the public.
Beginning on August 31, 2020, most (if not all) non-jury trial matter is scheduled to begin. This phase will be a welcome opening of the Courts in Maryland for disputed, contested matters that do not require a jury.
The final scheduled transition in the reopening of Maryland Courts is Phase V which is scheduled to being October 5, 2020. This is the date when jury trials are slated to begin again in Maryland.
The Reality for Criminal Proceedings Moving Forward
The reality of Court openings is somewhat different from the schedule. While the judges and clerks offices in Maryland are doing their best to plan for the avalanche of cases that need to be dealt with, none of them have ever had to manage a backlog, which in the case of jury trials, is greater than six (6) months. Delays in the normal processing of cases should be expected.
These delays are especially troubling for individuals who are presently incarcerated and are awaiting trial. Many of those defendants have been and will continue to wait in jail hoping to have the opportunity to have their cases tried when the courts reopen. While those incarcerated defendant are being made a priority by the Court, the simple truth is that there will not be enough courts available to handle the glut of cases which has been sitting since March 16, 2020.
The Silver Lining for Criminal Defendants Resulting from COVID-19
There are a few potential benefits to criminal defendants resulting from the COVID-19 closings of the Courts. First, if a defendant is “on the street”, they do not have their freedom restrained, they are in a position in many cases to continue working and spending time with their families, etc. It is also important to keep in mind that as time passes, criminal charges often lose their importance as new cases take their place.
Additionally, the longer cases sit untried the more likely it is that the witnesses will move, forget details, etc. Lastly, and perhaps most importantly, judges and prosecutors are aware of the clog of cases in the judicial system and the risks associated with sending individuals to jail. As a result, it is predicted that plea offers as well as sentences levied by judges will be greatly reduced. Both the Courts and the State have tremendous incentives to move cases forward quickly upon reopening which should benefit criminal defendants whose attorneys are aware of these facts.
If you or a loved one are facing criminal charges are need the assistance of a criminal defense attorney, call Craig Kadish & Associates today. We are available 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, and will do everything our power to help you get through this.