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Baltimore Crime Beat

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First defendants get lawyers at bail hearings in Maryland

In the aftermath of an eight-year court battle, a major change in the way Maryland's justice system operates finally boiled down Tuesday to one simple question.

"Would you like to have a court-appointed attorney?" court Commissioner Jennifer Colton asked a heavily tattooed man sitting in her Towson office.

Colton is a foot soldier in Maryland's sprawling judicial system, tasked with deciding whether arrested people should be released, required to post bail or held until they see a judge.

It's a key moment in the legal process, but until now the people facing Colton had not been able to demand the advice of a lawyer.

That changed after a group of people arrested in Baltimore sued the state. They argued that not making attorneys available violated their constitutional rights, and after a tortuous slog through the court system, they won.

On Tuesday, the first pair of attorneys funded by the state clocked in to work at the Towson courthouse. The only problem they were having was drumming up clients.

Demond Wayne Alvez, the tattooed man facing a second-degree assault charge, thought about Colton's question briefly. Then he answered, "I'm all right."

In Towson and around the state, officials said things were going smoothly, with some people invoking their right to counsel — especially at Baltimore's Central Booking and Intake Center — and others opting to proceed without a lawyer.

The battle over the issue has attracted the attention of the state's top courts, the General Assembly and the governor's office for years. Advocates for the idea said it would lead to fewer people in jail, while opponents called it a waste of money and said it could lead to chaos.

Douglas Colbert, a law professor who has been fighting for the right to representation at the hearings for 16 years, said Tuesday was "an historic day."

"It's the first time an accused poor person can count on a lawyer's representation when freedom's at stake," he said.

Colbert, who teaches at the University of Maryland School of Law, said there are still kinks to work out. And he said he and the other lawyers who argued the case would be keeping an eye on the system to make sure that anyone who waives their rights does so with an understanding of the implications.

Colbert had wanted the lawyers to be able to talk with the arrestees before seeing the commissioner, but rules adopted by the judiciary only provide for consultation after the person has asked for an attorney.

The state's top court ruled last September that having a lawyer at the hearings was a right under Maryland's constitution.

It was not a popular finding in many quarters. A previous decision based on the state's public defender law was undone by the General Assembly, and Gov. Martin O'Malley initially expressed hope the court would reconsider the second ruling.

But when Court of Appeals judges said they would not change the decision, the debate turned to how to implement it. Late in this year's session, the General Assembly approved funds for the judiciary to hire the lawyers.

Since then, commissioners have been drilling, getting ready for July 1, when that money would be available to pay for 2,500 attorneys that the top judge of the District Court had been working to recruit. In Towson, Michael S. Charnasky, the administrative commissioner, had been pulling 60- and 70-hour weeks to get ready.

On Tuesday, even commissioners who had the day off were in the office to lend moral support and watch the new system in action.

Donald L. Merson, who has three decades on the job, said the ruling ushered in the biggest change he'd seen in his career — "by far."

"In the 30 years I have had less than 10 attorneys in my office," he said in an interview Monday. "I've given a bail hearing to a Ravens player without a lawyer."

Liban A. Sheikh-Yusuf, who was arrested for failing to show up for a court date, said he hadn't heard of the change. In an interview, he said having a lawyer seemed like a good idea.

"They'll probably know more about the case than you," he said.

But in the end, he waived his right, figuring he'd been arrested over a paperwork glitch and that it was not a big deal.

The commissioner released him on an unsecured bond, meaning he would not have to pay anything to get released.

Gina Jun, one of two lawyers working the first shift at the Towson courthouse, spent the morning waiting to get her first client. By lunchtime, no one had taken a commissioner up on the opportunity to speak with her, but in the afternoon things picked up, Jun said, and she did her first hearing.

The defendant was released on his own promise to show up for court, Jun said.

"He was pleased with the result," she said.

iduncan@baltsun.com

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