That order limited felony proceedings in circuit courts but allowed misdemeanor criminal cases in district court — which don’t involve juries — to continue in person. On Monday, Public Defender Paul DeWolfe called for the postponement of district court hearings that do not involve an incarcerated defendant or an allegation of domestic violence.
“Your orders are being interpreted inexplicably to allow for District Courts to continue all criminal proceedings in person, despite these dockets posing among the greatest COVID risks and the least urgency,” DeWolfe wrote in his letter to Chief Judge Mary Ellen Barbera.
The chief judge’s office could not be reached for comment.
Maryland’s district courts, which do not conduct jury trials, often hear cases relating to traffic offenses, landlord and tenant cases, and low-level crimes, in addition to civil cases in the amount of $30,000 or less.
“While we believe that some of these low level misdemeanors should simply be dismissed, postponement until in-court proceedings are safe is a reasonable middle position that should be required statewide.” DeWolfe wrote.
DeWolfe said attorneys in Montgomery and Prince George’s counties, two of the hardest-hit jurisdictions in the state, have been exposed to the virus while representing their clients.
DeWolfe pointed to the fact that Baltimore City’s district court has postponed all cases not involving an incarcerated defendant, as long as they do not involve allegations of domestic violence.
Incarcerated defendants in the city will participate in virtual hearings starting Wednesday, according to a statement issued by Administrative Judge Barbara Baer Waxman. If, after that hearing, the defendant wants a court trial, it will take place one week later as long as the individual tests negative for COVID-19.
“Baltimore City District Court is the largest and most complex of the state’s district courts. If it can effectively postpone all cases not involving incarcerated defendants it seems that the rest of the district courts throughout the state can and should follow suit,” DeWolfe wrote.