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Baltimore judge irks prosecutors by holding court and accepting pleas during coronavirus

Even with schools, offices and restaurants closed by the coronavirus, Baltimore Circuit Judge Melissa Phinn was on the bench Tuesday morning to hear guilty pleas.

This continued business required the presence of lawyers, clerks and other courtroom staff — leading city prosecutors to urge Phinn to suspend her busy docket for risk of spreading the virus.

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Michael Schatzow, the chief deputy state’s attorney, asked Phinn to close her docket of reception court. He noted an order Monday from Chief Judge Mary Ellen Barbera to close courts across the state except for emergency operations such as bail reviews.

Later Tuesday, she reaffirmed her position by announcing in a message that she would continue to hear guilty pleas through April 3. All other cases are postponed.

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Phinn did not return a message to her chambers.

Instead, a spokeswoman for the courts provided a statement from the administrative judge. Circuit Judge Audrey Carrion wrote she decided to continue reception court so defendants aren’t left waiting in jail.

“It is our responsibility to address those cases that may result in plea deals that would result in the defendant returning back to the community,” she wrote.

Prosecutors have expressed frustration that such hearings continue despite the pandemic. In a letter to the court Friday, Baltimore State’s Attorney Marilyn Mosby wrote that her prosecutors worried about appearing in the busy reception court.

The docket was designed to streamline cases and free up other courtrooms for trial. Phinn handles dozens of guilty pleas, postponements, and other routine matters that don’t require a jury. Each day, lawyers hurry in and out. The cases proceed at rapid pace.

“In light of the fear and anxiety that my prosecutors have all expressed in not only appearing for work but appearing in Reception Court, which is arguably a breeding ground for the spread of this exceptional virus, my office is operating with a skeletal crew,” Mosby wrote.

The coronavirus has disrupted or closed public offices across Maryland. Offices of the public defender closed, too.

Chief Judge Barbera shutdown all courts and court offices. She ordered each jurisdiction to keep on hand enough judges to hear emergency matter, including arraignments, juvenile detention hearings and bench warrants.

On Saturday, U.S. District Judge James Bredar ordered the federal courthouse in Baltimore shutdown except for emergencies.

Meanwhile, the number of coronavirus cases in Maryland continues to rise. State officials now say at least 57 people have confirmed COVID-19 infections. Gov. Larry Hogan has closed bars, restaurants, movie theaters and gyms. He has also postponed the elections, banned congregations of 50 or more people, and declared a state of emergency.

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