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State's attorney to staff initial appearance hearings 24/7 beginning July 1

Beginning July 1, low-income defendants arrested in Maryland will have the right to a state-funded defense attorney when they are brought before a judicial officer to be formally charged and assigned bail. When that happens, the Carroll County State's Attorney's Office wants to be there.

"From our perspective, the hearings have changed," said Deputy Chief State's Attorney Allan J. Culver. "It's gone from a procedural to an adversarial proceeding."

The Maryland Court of Appeals ruled in September that defendants have the right under the state's constitution to have an attorney provided at the initial appearance if they cannot afford one. The decision was stayed temporarily to allow the judiciary and the Maryland Office of the Public Defender to devise a plan to address the issue.

The Court of Appeals issued an order Wednesday extending the stay of the implementation of its ruling until July 1, when the District Court of Maryland plans to begin its Appointed Attorneys Program, in which participants will be compensated at a rate of $50 per hour or receive pro bono credit in exchange for representing low-income defendants.

According to Culver, the state's attorney's office began considering attending the hearings at the conclusion of the 2014 legislative session after the General Assembly failed to meaningfully reform the initial appearance system.

"Everyone was hoping that during the legislative session, the legislature would figure out a way to implement [the] decision," he said.

The legislature allocated $10 million for the next year to the judiciary in order to pay for private defense attorneys.

According to spokeswoman Anjelita Plemmer Williams, the Maryland Judiciary has not yet determined how attorneys will be assigned or how they will receive their compensation. When they apply, attorneys can request the jurisdictions they want to work in and what hours or "shifts" they want to be on call.

Culver said that if a defense attorney is representing the arrested individual and advocating for a low bail or even release, the state, as the representative of the citizens on the county, must be there also.

According to the Maryland Judiciary, the decision to have a state's attorney attend the initial appearance is up to the individual offices.

Some counties simply do not have the funding.

Baltimore County State's Attorney Scott D. Shellenberger said that his office does not have the manpower to attend the hearings and therefore has no plans to staff them.

In Howard County, however, the state's attorney's office is working on a program whereby police can contact a prosecutor when a serious crime is being charged and then a decision can be made about whether an attorney needs to attend the initial appearance, according to spokesman Wayne Kirwan.

Kirwan said that the Howard County office, as in Carroll County, began discussing the possibility of staffing the initial appearance after the legislature failed to change the system.

"That situation has been so fluid," Kirwan said.

The Washington County State's Attorney's Office requested funding to hire additional attorneys after the September ruling, according to Deputy State's Attorney Joseph Michael. He said his office's plan is to staff every initial appearance where defense counsel is present, but like other jurisdictions, Washington County is still unsure how the process will work in practice.

The Maryland Rules Committee, in charge of drafting and recommending amendments and additions to procedures and practices in Maryland courts, is still working to accommodate the new constitutional requirements, according to Culver.

"It's still a work in progress," he said.

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