Maryland Criminal Law & Court Procedures
What happens in a criminal case? Here is a brief overview of many the basic steps of how a criminal charge progresses through the Maryland Court system. All cases are different, and not all steps apply in ever case, but
1) Initial Arrest & Bail
In a situation in which someone is arrested and not immediately released, the person is brought to jail. Once in jail, a Commissioner sets the initial bail. If bail is set and the individual cannot afford to post it, then the individual is entitled to a bail review hearing before a Judge. This will happen either within 24 hours or the next business day. If the individual can afford the amount set then he/she will be released following payment and required to show up at the next trial date on his/her own accord.
2) The Arraignment & Entering a Plea
After criminal charges are filed against an individual in Maryland, he or she appears in court for an arraignment (not everyone has an arraignment; it depends on the charges). During the arraignment, the judge will formally charge the accused with the crime(s) for which he/she is accused of committing. Bail may be raised or lowered as well (see “Bail” below for different types of bail.) In addition, the individual will be asked to enter a plea (guilty, not guilty, or nolo contendere) to the crime with which he/she has been charged.
A “Guilty” plea means that the individual admits to everything with which he/she is charged and is willing to face whatever penalty the court imposes. It is not wise to plead guilty at arraignment; at the very least, one ought to speak with an attorney first.
Not Guilty Plea
A “Not Guilty” plea means that the individual does not admit to anything with which he/she is charged. Although it is not necessarily a denial of the charges, essentially, it means that the defendant intends to hold the State of Maryland to its burden of proof. In almost every case, a defendant should enter a not guilty plea.
Nolo Contendere (no contest)
A “Nolo Contendere” plea means that the individual, while not admitting guilt, does not dispute the charge(s). This is preferable to a guilty plea because guilty pleas can be used against individuals in later civil lawsuits. A nolo contendere should not be entered except pursuant to the advice of an attorney.
3) Bail At Arraignment
In many cases, the individual is released on your own recognizance or “R.O.R.” (own recognizance) (or supervised OR). Essentially, he/she does not have to pay bail because the court judges that the individual will show up for court appearances on his/her own accord.
Bail is money paid to the court to ensure that individual’s return to court on all future dates. An individual may post bail or him/herself, have someone over 18 years old post it on the individual’s behalf, or use a bondsman. The person posting bail assumes full responsibility for the individual’s appearance in court. If the defendant fails to appear as required, a warrant will be issued for his/her immediate arrest and the bail will be forfeited.
4) Types Of Bail
There are several ways in which to post bail, as follows:
A percentage of the total amount may be posted.
Property, such as a home or land, may be used to post bail, provided that the amount of equity in the property meets or exceeds the amount of bail.
Intangible assets, such as the following, are acceptable: Bankbooks, certificates of deposit, letters of credit, and stock certificates.
A commissioner of the court may not accept intangible assets, only a clerk may do so.
Credit / Debit Cards
Both clerks and commissioners may accept credit as a form of bond. The card is charged in the amount of the bail as well as a service fee. The card must be presented along with some form of identification.
A bail bondsman is a licensed professional who charges a non-refundable fee to post bail. In addition to the fee, bondsmen usually require collateral security or property.
5) Preliminary Hearing
After the arraignment, the individual appears before a District Court Judge for a preliminary hearing. Generally speaking, you are only entitled to a preliminary hearing if charged in the district court with circuit court felonies.
If you are charged with a minor offense (misdemeanor level), the preliminary hearing serves as an inquiry to determine if you have an attorney and understand the charges. This hearing is often waived if your attorney enters his or her appearance. Most misdemeanor cases do not have a preliminary hearing.
In addition, at the preliminary hearing, the commissioner does the following:
- ensures that you understand the charges against you and the possible penalties;
- advises you of your right to an attorney;
- advises you of your responsibility in obtaining an attorney;
- decides whether you should be held or released before trial; and,
- determines whether bail should be set, and, if so, the amount.
If you are charged with a felony, then the hearing commissioner at the preliminary hearing will determine if probable cause exists to charge you with the particular crime you are alleged to have committed. You, as the accused do not have a right to testify at this hearing, nor are you allowed to put forth evidence. You are not on trial, it is the state that must establish the legal standard of probable cause to continue with the case against you. However, you and your attorney may confront the evidence against you, i.e. by cross-examination.
If the court finds no probable cause, charges may be dismissed. However, the state’s attorney may re-file charges later, but that is unlikely.
6) Right To An Attorney
In Maryland, every person accused of a crime, the penalty of which is incarceration (jail), has the right to be represented by counsel. If you want a lawyer but cannot afford one, the state will appoint the individual a lawyer free of charge, so long as you are eligible. The Maryland Office of the Public Defender (877-430-5187) handles all indigent cases.
7) Jury Trial / Bench Trial
In District Court, a person may request a jury trial in the appropriate Circuit Court if the crime with which you have been charged carries penalties of 90 days or more in jail. Otherwise, a judge will hear the case; this is often referred to as a “Bench Trial.” Deciding on a bench trial vs. a jury trial depends on a wide variety of factors in your case, which you can discuss with your attorney.
If you have a District Court case with a right to a jury trial and wish do to so, you and your defense attorney must file a request for a jury trial at least 15 days before the scheduled trial date.
If you are found guilty, or are working out a plea deal to agree to plead guilty, read my full sentencing page here.
The Criminal Appeals Process
If you decide to go to trial in District Court and don’t agree with the decision or the sentence by the judge, you can appeal that decision. Appellate law is a specialized area of criminal defense. If your lawyer finds grounds for appeal, you will be given a new trial in the Circuit Court. If you are convicted after trial in the Circuit Court, then you may appeal to the Court of Special Appeals.
Maryland Criminal Court Structure
In the state of Maryland, there are two trial courts; the District Court and the Circuit Court. Both courts hear criminal cases. The District Court hears the less serious criminal matters, while the Circuit Courts hear the more serious matters, (see “difference between a felony and a misdemeanor” below.)
Maryland District Courts
There are 34 courts in 12 districts statewide. The District Court operates as a unified system. At least one judge presides in each county and Baltimore City. There is no right to a jury trial in the District Courts; all trials are heard by a judge. (see above, “Jury Trial / Bench Trial). In certain circumstances, a case may be removed to the Circuit Court upon a request for a jury trial.
The District Court has jurisdiction over traffic violations, misdemeanor level charges, and some felonies. The Circuit Court shares jurisdiction with the District Court in cases in which the crime charged carries a penalty of three years or more in prison and/or a fine of $2,500 or more.
Maryland Circuit Courts
There is a Circuit Court in each county and Baltimore City. The circuit courts of Maryland are the trial courts of general jurisdiction. The Circuit Courts are funded by each county or city. They are not unified, like the District Court. Circuit Court hears more serious, felony level criminal matters, appeals from the District Court (see “appeals” above,) and cases from the District Court in which a party requested a jury trial.
Call Me For a Free Consultation on any Maryland Criminal Charge
I will consult with you on any criminal charges in Maryland in my free legal consultation. If you’ve been arrested and charged with a crime in the state of Maryland, you need help as soon as possible. The first step is to talk to an attorney who handles criminal defense cases every day. I will help you figure out your options and what to do next to protect your right, your freedom, and keep your record clean.
Call me at (888) 452-4344 for a no obligation, criminal defense consultation.