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COVID-19 and Criminal Law

Maryland courts are currently closed to the public until June 5th due to the coronavirus pandemic. This is of course going to take a toll on the criminal justice system and those most affected by what the court decides.

The courts are not entirely shut down even though they are closed to the public. Certain emergency matters are still being heard by the courts. However, most trials are being rescheduled with the court contacting parties with new dates.

What Matters are Still Being Heard in Courts?

“Emergency matters are still being heard in Maryland courts, including bail review and protective petitions.”

Jury trials and the selection of jurors are suspended through June 5th. According to the State of Maryland, the following matters are still being heard. Other types of cases are being rescheduled.

In the Circuit Courts:

  • bail reviews/bench warrants
  • arraignments for detained defendants
  • juvenile detention hearings
  • juvenile shelter care hearings
  • peace order petitions (juvenile respondents)
  • emergency evaluation petitions
  • quarantine and isolation petitions
  • extradition cases
  • body attachments
  • extreme risk protective order appeals

In the District Court:

  • bail reviews/bench warrants
  • emergency evaluation petitions
  • quarantine and isolation violations
  • body attachments

District Court Commissioners (Call first. See the Directory):

  • new domestic violence protective petitions (adult respondents)
  • new peace order petitions (adult respondents)
  • new extreme risk protective order petitions
  • initial appearances
  • applications for statement of charges
  • acceptance of bail bonds
  • bench warrant satisfactions

The cases listed below may not need to be heard in person. To find out about your case, contact the Circuit Court or District Court. A judge there will decide if your case will be held in person, via videoconference, or if it can be otherwise resolved.

  • domestic violence hearings (New cases: contact a District Court Commissioner)
  • peace order hearings, appeals from peace orders (New cases: contact a District Court Commissioner)
  • extreme risk protective order hearings (New cases: contact a District Court Commissioner)
  • contempt relating to peace or protective orders
  • temporary restraining orders
  • family law emergencies (custody, child access, visitation, support, immigration status)
  • shelter care or adjudications (Child in Need of Assistance (CINA))
  • emergency guardianship matters
  • emergency delinquency hearings, including those who are detained
  • emergency habeas corpus petitions
  • criminal competency matters
  • matters involving locally incarcerated defendants
Will my Domestic Violence Case be Heard Quickly?

If you are in danger and need a peace order, protective order, or extreme risk protective order, the state has emphasized that your request will get a response. If the circumstances of the case involve an order to leave the home, child custody, or a firearm, the case may be expedited. A commissioner will issue an interim order, which will remain in effect until the court takes action, and a hearing for a temporary order will be held within 7 days. The person to call is your District Court Commissioner.

Other resources include:

How are Deadlines, Such as the Statute of Limitations, Affected by COVID-19?

An administrative order from Maryland’s Chief Judge, Mary Ellen Barbera, says that statutory and rules deadlines for new and pending cases, including statutes of limitations, are suspended or tolled. The deadlines are extended for an amount of time equal to the number of days that the courts stayed closed to the public.

An earlier administrative order from the US District Court for the District of Maryland says that all filing deadlines that originally fell in the period between March 16th and June 5th are extended for 84 days. It also says that the 30-day time limit for filing an indictment or information is tolled.

The time limits of these two orders, then, are contradictory, and lawyers are still working to determine the exact deadlines for their cases. The laws are being updated frequently. However, the Maryland Courts website follows the rules set out in Chief Judge Barbera’s order.

Can I still File Documents with the Court While it is Closed?

The court is still accepting documents filed through its MDEC electronic system, mail, and in-person via a dropbox. The filing date for mailed documents is the postmark date, while the filing date for documents deposited in a dropbox is the previous business day (unless the dropbox has a timestamp).

How Do I Get a Copy of a Court Order?

Contact the Clerk’s office of the court in which your case is pending. There may be a fee.

How are Prisoners in Maryland Being Protected from the Coronavirus?

The safety of inmates is a huge concern for Maryland families and a major human rights issue. There are 1,100 inmates older than 60 in just the state prison system, which does not include the county jail population or otherwise at-risk inmates (asthmatics, etc.). How are prisons protecting older and at-risk inmates from catching the virus?

The answer right now is: not enough. The first Maryland inmate died from the coronavirus on April 13th—he was in his 60s and had serious underlying medical conditions. The number of cases in Maryland prisons is growing every day. Interviews with inmates have revealed filthy conditions in Maryland prisons even as the virus rages, from broken washing machines to limited supplies of soap.

“Some Maryland officials are working to release elderly and otherwise at-risk nonviolent inmates from prison.”

One strategy to protect inmates is to essentially lock down the facilities. For example, in March, state prison visitation was suspended. Instead, inmates can make free phone calls. Prisons are taking inmates’ temperatures, and those who have tested positive for the virus are supposed to be isolated and given surgical masks. Allegedly, prisons are in the process of getting more protective gear, such as hand sanitizer and face guards.

Another option to curtail the virus in prisons is to reduce the prison population by releasing older or at-risk nonviolent inmates. Some jurisdictions have already begun this process. Dozens of people have been released over the past few weeks in Baltimore City and Prince George’s County. Juvenile facilities are already working to reduce the number of children detained.

The latest news in whether or not Maryland will allow a widespread release of at-risk prisoners came late on April 14th. Chief Judge Mary Ellen Barbera ordered trial courts to begin identifying at-risk prisoners who pose no threat to public safety for release. Governor Larry Hogan has not yet acted in support of Judge Barbera’s latest measure. Additionally, federal authorities may make things difficult for prisoners to be released.

Are Some Criminal Charges Being Dropped During COVID-19?

In mid-March, the State’s Attorney for Baltimore, Marilyn Mosby, announced that the city will stop prosecuting some nonviolent charges. Pending charges involving drug possession, attempted drug distribution, prostitution, trespassing, minor traffic charges, open container laws, etc. will be dismissed.

Why would Baltimore City stop prosecuting these crimes? Mosby made the decision in order to reduce the jail population. This will help slow the spread of the virus in prisons.

This does not mean that people who have already been charged with one or more of these crimes will have their charges dropped or that people stopped by a police officer for these crimes will face no consequences. Instead, Mosby’s announcement prevents new defendants from being brought into central booking. Mostly, people would not be arrested and booked for these minor crimes anyway, but now, police officers know that they should always issue offenders citations and court summons instead of arresting them.

While Baltimore City decided not to prosecute some nonviolent charges, some counties are not on board. For example, Carroll County will continue to prosecute all crimes.

It is also worth noting that, once courts reopen, the prosecution will be overwhelmed with cases. In order to prioritize other cases, prosecution may be more likely to drop minor cases. Prosecution may make mistakes, witnesses and police officers dealing with more pressing matters may not attend trials, and government resources may go elsewhere. All of this and more could make it easier for criminal defense attorneys to put pressure on the prosecution.

Can People be Arrested in Maryland for Violating COVID-19 Social Distancing Rules?

Yes. So far, 14 people have been arrested, mostly for throwing parties. Violating the executive order to stay home is a misdemeanor punishable by up to a $5,000 fine and a year in jail.

One woman, for example, was supposed to be quarantining after being treated for the coronavirus at a hospital. She was driving late at night when she got into a car accident and refused to keep 6 feet away from first responders, even climbing into a BGE truck and touching surfaces inside. The woman was charged with criminal counts but not taken into custody since this would put law enforcement in danger of infection.

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