On January 4, 2012, Maryland’s highest court issued a unanimous ruling in Richmond v. District Court of Maryland that guarantees the right of indigent defendants to have a lawyer present at their initial bail hearing. At this hearing which occurs shortly after an individual is arrested and detained, a District Court Commissioner determines whether there was probable cause for the arrest and, if so, whether the individual should be released pending trial and under what conditions.
The Court of Appeals agreed with arguments advanced by the NAACP Legal Defense & Educational Fund, Inc. (LDF), in a friend-of-the-court brief, that the plain language of the Maryland Public Defender Act mandates appointment of counsel at “all stages” of criminal proceedings, including these initial bail hearings. As the Court of Appeals recognized, “the likelihood that the [District Court] Commissioner will give full and fair consideration to all facts relevant to the bail determination can only be enhanced by the presence of counsel.”
Commenting on the Court of Appeals’ decision, John Payton, LDF’s President and Director-Counsel, stated: “This ruling will help to safeguard fairness in Maryland’s criminal justice system, especially for African Americans who have been disproportionately and detrimentally affected by Maryland’s failure to appoint legal counsel at the commencement of criminal proceedings.” Due to income disparities, African-Americans nationwide are more likely to languish in pre-trial jails and, unable to afford proper representation, rely heavily on state appointed counsel. In Baltimore City, for instance, while African Americans represent 64% of the population, they make up 87% of individuals in pre-trial detention facilities.
The Court of Appeals also rejected requests to delay a ruling declaring the right to counsel at initial bail hearings, based on concerns about the financial costs that the State Public Defender may incur in implementing that right. As a majority of the Court of Appeals held, its obligation to uphold the law “is not subject to or in any way dependent upon the level of appropriations received by the Public Defender.”