Recent letters and an op-ed in The Baltimore Sun have suggested the need for a Warrant Amnesty Program, particularly for non-violent offenders who have missed a court date. While the District Court of Maryland welcomes suggestions to improve its operations, there is already a procedure in place to recall certain types of arrest warrants, with typically little to no impact on the defendant. An explanation may be helpful to assist those interested in the process.
In order to request a recall of a warrant, the defendant need only make a request of the court in person or in writing. When a defendant appears at the clerk's office to file a request for recall, the clerk can walk the file into the courtroom where the judge is sitting, and the defendant can wait until the end of the docket, at which time many judges will review the request. Or, the defendant can fill out a written request, which is taken to the judge for review, typically the same or next business day. There is no filing fee associated with either process the individual chooses.
Upon receipt of a written request, the judge will review the defendant's reasoning for failing to appear, the nature of the charges, the prior times that the defendant has failed to appear, and whether the defendant has been advised of his or her rights. It is quite common for the judge to recall the warrant on non-serious charges without requiring an appearance by the defendant in court. In those situations where the defendant has not previously been advised of his or her rights, the charges are more serious, or there is not a sufficient reason for the defendant's failure to appear in court, judges will frequently require the defendant to appear for a recall hearing within five to 10 days. At these hearings, the vast majority of warrants are recalled; although many defendants fail to appear for the recall hearings.
The recall hearing is very helpful to both judges and defendants. It is an opportunity to advise the defendant of his or her right to counsel, if he or she had not been previously so instructed. The judge is able to directly communicate with the defendant and explain the access to the Office of the Public Defender. During these hearings, the judges are able to read the defendant's case file to determine if they are likely to appear in court again, especially in cases where the defendant has failed to appear multiple times. It is a chance for the defendant to explain why he or she failed to appear and for the judge to stress the importance of showing up for future court dates.
Frequently lost in this discussion is how failures to appear impact the victims involved in the case, as well as the court system. When a defendant fails to appear, it is frequently the victim who suffers. Many of the victims will lose another day from work, pay another expense to travel to court and suffer another instance of stress for a rescheduled court date. Police officers lose hours in court waiting for a defendant to appear, which takes valuable time away from community policing and crime fighting efforts. A failure to appear requires multiple people to perform different duties in order to reschedule the date, issue a warrant and send out proper notices.
An excellent opportunity for community collaboration is a partnership between University of Maryland Law School students, led by Professor Doug Colbert, and the Office of the Public Defender, to coordinate an effort to assist defendants with written requests to recall warrants. As the Office of the Public Defender is charged with the statutory responsibility of representing those defendants who are unable to afford an attorney, a "recall warrant" program operated by the Office of the Public Defender or other volunteer attorneys ensures that all defendants will be properly represented before the court, adds an additional notification opportunity to remind the defendant of his or her court date and will reduce the need for future postponements to obtain an attorney. The District Court stands ready to provide the required level of staffing to rule promptly on all such motions.
The District Court remains committed to providing a fair and efficient forum to all those who come before it. The court appreciates the opportunity to inform its users of existing procedures that will address those seeking to recall their warrants. Forms for filing a Motion to Recall can be downloaded at the Judiciary's website located at mdcourts.gov. Information regarding a current warrant on any particular case can be accessed by using the Maryland Judiciary's Case Search database. Defendants can also call the District Court criminal/traffic clerk for the particular location that the warrant is outstanding. It is always recommended that an individual consult with an attorney when he or she has a pending legal matter.
John P. Morrissey is the chief judge of the District Court of Maryland. He may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.