Jury costs imposed after plea bargain

May 15, 1994|By Darren M. Allen | Darren M. Allen,Sun Staff Writer

When a defendant decided at the last minute to forgo a jury trial and accept a plea bargain last week, a Carroll Circuit judge charged him $405 for court costs.

Jurors were called to the courtroom but not used after Paul Nelson Barnes agreed to a deal with the prosecution rather than stand trial on breaking and entering charges. The bargain was struck minutes before prosecutors and defense attorneys were to begin selecting a jury.

Judge Luke K. Burns Jr. charged Barnes the $15-a-day fee paid to people called for jury duty.

Defense attorney Donald D. Hecht said the fee "sounds unconstitutional."

But judges, jury commissioners, prosecutors and criminal defense lawyers in the metropolitan Baltimore area said that such a fee is a reasonable way to prevent the needless summoning of jurors.

"You really have to look at it on a case-by-case basis," said Michael Kaminkow, a Baltimore lawyer who is president of the Maryland Criminal Defense Attorneys' Association.

Judge Burns said his decision to impose the $405 court cost -- 27 potential jurors were called in for Mr. Barnes' case -- was an easy one.

"This is an inconvenience for the jury, for the witnesses, for the court," the judge said.

"In this case, everyone knew the rules and the offer for months, and a jury still was called in," he said.

The judge said he and his two colleagues in Carroll Circuit Court have been assessing jury costs for three or four years but do so infrequently. Judge Burns said he has done it only four times.

"It doesn't happen very often," he said.

In Anne Arundel County, judges impose jury costs on defendants who make last-minute plea agreements. Judges in Baltimore County rarely impose such fees, and in Harford County the cost is levied on attorneys "who are habitual doers of this," said Dorothy I. Jones, the assistant jury commissioner.

The fee is never imposed in Howard County or in Baltimore City, officials there said.

"We never assess jury costs to the defendant," said Steven T. Merson, Howard County's jury commissioner. "The best plea bargains are sometimes made two minutes before the trial."

If Mr. Hecht had his way, no defendant ever would be charged with exercising -- and then waiving -- his constitutional right to a jury.

"This just doesn't seem right," Mr. Hecht said last week after his client was sentenced to six months in the county detention center. "It seems to impinge on a defendant's absolute right to a jury trial and then penalizes him when he declines to exercise that right."

Not so, says Carroll Assistant State's Attorney Barton F. Walker III, who prosecuted Mr. Barnes.

"There's a consequence to everything we do in life," Mr. Walker said. "The defendant knows what the state's evidence against him is, he knows the facts of the case, he knows if he's guilty or innocent.

"Sometimes, he wants a jury trial just to call the prosecution's bluff, and, when he sees all those faces out there, he decides he wants to take the deal. The citizens of the county shouldn't have to pay for that."

In Anne Arundel County -- as in Carroll -- judges schedule pretrial conferences in chambers between prosecutors and defense lawyers to see if both sides can reach an acceptable plea agreement.

"The defendants do get assessed these costs" if they insist on a jury but accept a plea bargain on the day the trial is to begin, Anne Arundel Judge Bruce C. Williams said through his secretary. "That's why the judges have these conferences."

In Baltimore City -- which calls in 400 potential jurors every day in anticipation of numerous trials -- such a jury fee is unnecessary, an official there said.

But in Carroll, Howard and Harford counties, potential jurors are on call for anywhere from two weeks to a month. They are called into court only if a defendant requests a jury trial.

In Carroll, defendants must notify the jury commissioner by 3:30 p.m. the day before the trial about their intentions.

"Carroll doesn't have the luxury of keeping a pool of jurors in the courtroom all the time," Mr. Walker said. "The whole system is really about being responsible for your actions and decisions."

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