February 28, 2012

Different public defender bills to be voted on by both houses on Wednesday

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By Daniel Menefee
Dan@MarylandReporter.com

The House and Senate sent separate versions of the Public Defender Act for a final vote expected on Wednesday, which will establish the time frame for a defendant’s right to counsel and the appearance before a district court judge.

prison barsThe major difference in the bills is the time an indigent defendant would sit in jail after his or her initial appearance before a district court commissioner.

The Senate version of the bill establishes weekend hours for the courts, while the House version can keep a defendant in jail days longer if he or she were arrested on a Thursday or the Friday of a holiday weekend.

Maryland has until March 5 to comply with a recent appeals court ruling that mandates indigent defendants have counsel in their initial appearance before district court commissioners. Or lawmakers must pass the law before them, which would eliminate the initial right to counsel before a court commissioner and require defendants appear before a district court judge, where counsel for the indigent is mandated under Maryland and federal law.

Complying with the Court of Appeals order adds $25 million to the Public Defender’s Office to staff lawyers at commissioner hearings.  There are additional costs for prosecutors as well.

Maryland is the only state in the country that has the first layer of a court commissioner before a defendant is seen by a judge.

Conference committee likely

The House and Senate versions would keep the current mandate that a defendant appear before a court commissioner within 24 hours of arrest. What happens after the commissioner hearing is where the two bills disagree.

House Judiciary Committee Chairman Joseph Vallario, D-Prince George’s, added a floor amendment Tuesday that would give defendants the right to see a district court judge during the next court session. This could potentially leave a defendant in jail for 72 hours or more if he or she is arrested on the Thursday or Friday of a holiday weekend.

The Senate version, sponsored by Sen. Brian Frosh, D- Montgomery, chair of the Senate Judicial Proceedings Committee, could require weekend court sessions.

A weekend session would guarantee a hearing before a judge within 48 hours after the initial appearance before the commissioner if the defendant is arrested on the Thursday or Friday of a holiday weekend. If the defendant is arrested on a Monday, Tuesday or Wednesday, the window to be seen by a judge shrinks to 24 hours.

Frosh said the two versions will likely go to a conference committee over the issue of “weekend court,” which is opposed by most judges.

–Megan Poinski contributed to this article.