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Baltimore County courts fail to follow state safety guidance, Maryland Defenders Union says

Despite state orders limiting courtroom operations, Baltimore County courts are still scheduling hundreds of in-person hearings for low-level, nonviolent offenses each week, and the Maryland Defenders Union says it’s putting county attorneys, judicial staff and the public at risk.

Union members, which include more than 50 attorneys, social workers and other staff members in the county’s Office of the Public Defender, say Baltimore County’s four courthouses have for months violated orders from Maryland Chief Judge Mary Ellen Barbera to restrict certain cases and stipulating that courts “shall conduct remote proceedings to the greatest extent possible during the health emergency.”

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Union representatives say District Court Administrative Judge Dorothy Wilson has failed to enforce Barbera’s safety protocols and ensure the guidelines are adopted by county courthouses.

“They are not taking safety into account,” said Marci Johnson, president of the Maryland Defenders Union and an assistant public defender in Baltimore City. “It’s an egregious problem.”

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More than that, there is not enough adequate personal protective equipment, like N95 masks and partitions, for judicial employees; coronavirus screenings are shoddy and notifications of positive cases aren’t always shared with staff right away; and social distancing guidance doesn’t prevent the close contact that comes when police, family members, reporters, attorneys and other staff members are milling about each day, either inside courtrooms or gathered outside of them, Johnson said.

Under Barbera’s November order, district courts may “hear only limited actions including criminal cases, other civil proceedings and certain landlord-tenant case types.”

But Barbera’s order also gives the administrative judge discretion over which cases are heard in person or remotely.

The district courthouses in Towson, Catonsville and Essex have been “almost fully operational since June,” when courts reopened after statewide shutdown orders when the coronavirus first made its way to Maryland, Johnson said.

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Attorneys are “appearing every day” to represent clients facing adjudication for minor traffic violations, failing to pay train fare and trespassing at fast-food restaurants, she said.

On Feb. 8, more than 90 cases are scheduled to be heard in district courtrooms, according to a court docket. A circuit court docket for Feb. 2, before courts closed due to heavy snowfall, showed mostly in-person hearings.

Carly Towne, an assistant public defender in Baltimore County, said she’s frustrated and confused that the cases going forward don’t seem to fall in line with the state’s orders — county court operations confuse Towne’s clients, too, who see other localities, like Baltimore City, scaling back dockets and holding many hearings remotely.

Towne said motions filed by some of her clients to have their cases heard virtually have been denied. If a defendant fails to appear in court, bench warrants are issued for their arrest, she said.

“We’re seeing bench warrants issued for clients … for driving without a license,” she said.

Towne, who began working in the public defender’s office in 2019, said attempts to figure out which cases are moved forward and why some are denied remote hearings have been unsuccessful.

There is a “significant backlog” of cases, but Towne said “we’re not seeing a push to prioritize incarcerated clients” waiting for trials in jail, a hotbed for coronavirus spread.

The Maryland judiciary denied an interview request, but courts spokeswoman Terri Charles said in an email that district court cases “are prioritized based on whether the defendant is incarcerated, whether the cases involve a crime of violence, and/or an alcohol-related driving offense.”

Decisions to hold remote or in-person hearings are made on a case-by-case basis “and in consultation with the attorneys for the case,” Charles said.

Charles added that “many precautions” have been put in place at courthouses amid the pandemic, including mask-wearing mandates, no-contact temperature checks and plastic glass barriers installed in clerks’ offices and courtrooms.

Docket times are staggered to facilitate physical distancing, she said.

The Maryland Defenders Union, which represents more than 700 employees across the state and is part of the state’s largest union for state government employees, the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, or AFSCME, wants to see more amnesty for defendants facing misdemeanors and wants far more cases to be heard remotely. The union also wants more personal protective equipment.

“It’s not like it isn’t being done everywhere else,” Towne said. “There are not issues in terms of the technology or availability; we’re not utilizing what we could be doing to be safer.”

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