Reversal of court ruling sought by prosecutors

State's attorneys want a bill that would allow appeals for rule violations

January 21, 2003|By Sheridan Lyons | Sheridan Lyons,SUN STAFF

Maryland prosecutors are seeking to reverse the effects of a recent appellate court opinion that they say could render the rules governing state court proceedings unenforceable.

Responding to a ruling that a dissenting judge warned could throw the operation of courts "into chaos," an association representing Maryland's state's attorneys is calling for legislation that specifies that appeals can be based on violations of court rules.

The attorney general's office is asking the state's highest court to address the matter.

The actions stem from a Court of Special Appeals ruling that prosecutors had no right to appeal a change in a Westminster crack dealer's sentence made years after the time limit set by court rules.

"Why have rules if you don't enforce them?" asked Carroll County State's Attorney Jerry F. Barnes, whose appeal in the case involving Calvin L. Warfield led to the Court of Special Appeals decision. "The concern that any prosecutor would have in regard to this decision revolves around the fact that, if this proposition is left standing ... there is no finality in a criminal case."

Undoing the impact of the ruling is a priority for the Maryland State's Attorneys' Association, said Ara M. Crowe, the organization's executive director.

Warfield, now 30, repeatedly has sought drug treatment since he was sentenced in 1997 to 10 years in prison without parole on his second drug conviction, for selling crack cocaine to an undercover police officer.

Retired Circuit Judge Francis M. Arnold denied Warfield's requests for a sentence modification twice that year.

Warfield continued to write to the court, and in 2001, Carroll Circuit Judge Michael M. Galloway ordered him to be evaluated for drug treatment under the state health law. Warfield was returned to the detention center from state prison to await that evaluation.

Warfield was never released from custody, and the modification request has not been decided by Galloway, court files show. Edward M. Ulsch, a lawyer for Warfield, said last week that Galloway was allowed to order the evaluation under a section of the state's health law that says a judge can commit a criminal with drug or alcohol dependency to a treatment program at any time that the defendant agrees to it.

Warfield's move back to the county jail from state prison was enough to prompt Barnes to file an appeal with the Court of Special Appeals. He lost.

The intermediate appeals court ruled Nov. 27 that the 90-day time limit for sentence modification requests falls under state court rules, which are not part of the criminal code. In an opinion dismissing Barnes' appeal, a three-judge panel ruled 2-to-1 that the prosecution cannot appeal a rule violation.

The majority said it had no choice under current law. But Carroll Circuit Judge Raymond E. Beck Sr., who was specially assigned to the panel, wrote a dissent that concluded: "The result of the ruling here, if upheld by the Court of Appeals, could have a catastrophic effect on both the lower courts and the citizens of the state of Maryland.

"The Maryland Rules need no longer exist, for there would be no reason for either the courts or litigants to abide by them. The extent to which this decision could throw the lower courts into chaos is too great to even contemplate at this point."

The Maryland attorney general has asked the Court of Appeals to step into the case, arguing in a written brief that "it is not only an important issue ... it is a recurring one."

Because the higher court is not obligated to review the case, Barnes and the association decided to seek legislation. Barnes said the matter could be remedied by adding seven words - "or by the Maryland Rules of Procedure" - to the state code's Courts and Judicial Proceedings Article that allows appeals based on perceived misinterpretations of the law.

Del. Carmen Amedori, a Westminster Republican who is a member of the House Judiciary Committee, said the Carroll delegation is drafting a bill to add the words Barnes suggested.

"We, of course, think that there's a legitimate concern," she said."It's kind of complicated but really kind of simple: Complicated when you look at the history, but pretty simple language."

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