Lawyers lose use of crime records

Public defenders argue database limits could cause booking delays

November 08, 2005|By GUS G. SENTEMENTES | GUS G. SENTEMENTES,SUN REPORTER

The state has taken away the Baltimore public defenders' access to a computer database that they've used to research their clients' criminal records, prompting complaints that the move could lead to unfair bail hearings and longer stays in jail for people who have been arrested and are awaiting trial.

Public defenders issued a steady stream of objections during bail reviews yesterday for about 65 people in preparation for possible legal showdowns.

The public defenders argue that without the access, their work in representing more than 1,800 clients per month during their bail reviews is made more difficult and could cause further delays at the Central Booking and Intake Center.

The Maryland Department of Public Safety and Correctional Services granted them access to the database as part of an informal arrangement six years ago, public defenders said.

The state public safety department decided to limit the access to the computerized records based on guidance from an assistant attorney general, who advised that the public defenders' office is not a "criminal justice unit" entitled to the information, according to an Oct. 25 letter.

The public defenders' office is now fighting to regain access to information that includes statements of charges filed by police officers, basic medical screening information and detailed arrest and conviction records, which they say they need to represent clients during their bail reviews.

The bail review stage is critical for suspects because a judge uses the information and arguments from both prosecutors and defense attorneys to decide on the terms of release or incarceration until trial.

"More people will be spending more time in jail because we're going to be hampered," said Natalie Finegar, the chief attorney at Central Booking and Intake Center for the Office of the Public Defender.

Public defenders say that losing access to the information complicates their efforts in performing other services that help streamline the city's busy criminal justice system, such as identifying those who could receive drug treatment or plea deals.

Finegar said the state gave the city public defender's office access to the database in 1999 as a way to help make the booking process more efficient.

Now public defenders are having to rely on subpoenas to get criminal history information from the state database for each of their clients - a request that could now take up to 30 days per person. In the past, they used to be able to retrieve the same information at their computers.

Mark Vernarelli, a public safety department spokesman, emphasized that the city public defenders can still get access to some of the information, just not through the computer system.

"The critical component of Central Booking is partnerships," Vernarelli said. "Unfortunately in this case, it's apparently been determined that the Office of the Public Defender is not ... a criminal justice unit. And based on that, the attorney general's office advised the secretary that we apparently had no choice but to exclude them."

Assistant Attorney General Stuart M. Nathan advised in the Oct. 25 letter to Secretary Mary Ann Saar, head of the public safety department, that federal and state laws and regulations "preclude the [Office of the Public Defender] from having direct computer access" to the database, but the office could obtain the information after an "appropriate request."

In a Nov. 1 letter to Elizabeth L. Julian, the city's chief public defender, Saar wrote that Julian's office will have to "establish the best method for you to obtain this information."

"It caught us all off guard," Julian said. She said her office might not have been entitled to the database, per state regulations, "but fundamental fairness overrides these concerns when the issue is trying to keep a booking center from being overcrowded."

Public defenders say the lawsuit they filed against Central Booking earlier this year, where their clients complained about lengthy delays in seeing a court commissioner, would have never been possible if not for their access to this electronic database.

"We would've never been able to do it," Finegar said. "We're really hampered in monitoring that court order."

In bail reviews for 65 out of 120 people yesterday at Central Booking, Finegar said that public defenders entered objections before a judge if a prosecutor or a pretrial state representative discussed portions of a suspect's criminal record that they did not have.

In those cases, public defenders filed motions on behalf of their clients, requesting immediate access to statements of charges and objections to the recitation of prior criminal convictions, arrests, charges and allegations of failure to appear in court for other cases.

Finegar said that public defenders need to have access to that information so they can discuss it with their clients and argue better on their behalf during the bail review stage.

Finegar said that public defenders today expect to file motions in roughly 80 cases asking the court to hold hearings on the legality of the bail reviews that were conducted where they raised objections over their lack of access to information about their clients' criminal histories.

But the hearings could take another two or three weeks to be scheduled, she said.

gus.sentementes@baltsun.com

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