Judge halts jailings due to be challenged Prevas faced protest for holding suspects who lacked attorneys

'Plainly unconstitutional'

Practice was intended to derail defendants seeking to delay trial

October 29, 1998|By Caitlin Francke | Caitlin Francke,SUN STAFF

Baltimore Circuit Judge John N. Prevas will no longer jail defendants who come to court without attorneys, halting a potential legal challenge by an attorney who called the practice "plainly unconstitutional."

Prevas has decided to stop the practice, Judge Edward J. Angeletti said yesterday. Angeletti has been acting chief judge.

Prevas, who spoke openly in an interview with The Sun last week about his reasons for jailing defendants and appeared eager for a legal challenge, said through a secretary he would not comment.

Angeletti said Prevas acknowledged no wrongdoing.

Last week, Prevas said the jailings were an effort to operate his court efficiently and fairly -- by pushing defendants to get lawyers or imposing emergencies on the public defender's office, which provides legal representation for the poor.

"He said that unless the rules changed to permit him to do what he has been doing, he will not do it," said Angeletti, who was acting administrative judge for the past two weeks while Judge Joseph H. H. Kaplan has been on vacation.

Angeletti said Prevas thought there was "an ambiguity" in the law that allowed him to jail defendants without lawyers. "He thinks that now people are aware of how important it is to have" an attorney, Angeletti said.

This week, Prevas discussed the practice with the attorney general's office, which would represent him if a legal challenge was filed, Angeletti said.

Because of the judge's turnaround, attorney Michael A. Millemann said he would not challenge the practice that was at least 2 months old.

Millemann had planned to ask the state's highest court Tuesday to order Prevas to stop. "It is not necessary to file a lawsuit, because I believe the problem has been resolved," Millemann said.

"I certainly have seen the intelligent and caring side of the judge," Millemann said, "but when I look at these cases I am saddened to say that what I see is judicial bullying and a fundamental disrespect for the human dignity of defendants and the professional role of defense lawyers."

Prevas, 51 -- a former narcotics prosecutor appointed to the bench in 1986 -- has jailed at least 20 defendants in recent months because they came to court hearings and trials without attorneys, Millemann said.

Most spent hours behind bars. One spent a week in jail, court records show.

Prevas said he jailed defendants only in "exceptional" cases in which a defendant was intentionally delaying a trial by not getting a lawyer or making insufficient effort to go to the public defender's office.

Legal scholars have criticized the practice, saying defendants have the right to represent themselves. Prevas could find that defendants had waived their right to an attorney and proceed with trials, they said.

No court has said failing to obtain counsel is grounds for such action, law professors said.

Two weeks ago, Prevas jailed two defendants for not having attorneys, telling them that once they were represented they "would hit the street," according to a transcript of the proceedings.

He later released one -- 17-year-old Damon Davis -- after a public defender agreed to help find the teen-ager a lawyer.

That day Prevas also released a man he had jailed for a week, for having no attorney, when a public defender agreed to represent him.

In court yesterday, Prevas told defendants being arraigned by him that they had to find attorneys. He did not threaten to jail them, nor did he jail any of the seven who came without attorneys.

"What arrangements are you making to get counsel?" Prevas asked defendant Dante Wimbush.

Wimbush, who faces felony drug charges, said the public defender's office had rejected his case because his girlfriend's income made him ineligible and he was trying to hire a private lawyer.

Prevas told Wimbush to return with a lawyer next week.

"I've got to make sure you get counsel in time" to prepare for trial, Prevas told Wimbush.

Wimbush left the courtroom and went to the public defender's office, which agreed to represent him -- in two weeks.

He came back to court to ask for more time -- which Prevas granted.

"You just can't go out there and get a lawyer," Wimbush said. "It takes time."

Pub Date: 10/29/98

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