Suit challenges lack of lawyers at bail hearings for poor suspects

Complaint says resulting detentions are `wasteful'

November 14, 2006|By Greg Garland | Greg Garland,sun reporter

Maryland is violating the rights of the poor by failing to provide them with taxpayer-funded lawyers at bail hearings, according to a suit filed on their behalf yesterday by a Baltimore law firm.

The class action suit filed by Venable LLP targets procedures at the crowded Baltimore Central Booking and Intake Facility but has broader ramifications for jails throughout Maryland, lawyers say.

In Maryland, suspects make initial appearances before appointed district court commissioners, who decide whether to set bail, and, if so, how much it should be. No formal legal training is required to become a commissioner.

"This lawsuit breaks new ground because it's the first time a lawyer has argued that the right to counsel extends to the initial appearance," said Douglas L. Colbert, a professor at the University of Maryland School of Law. A clinic he runs at the law school is assisting with the case.

The suit argues that, under the Maryland Public Defender Act, those charged with crimes are entitled to counsel at "all stages" of a criminal proceeding - including the initial bail hearing. Those who can't afford a lawyer should be represented by a public defender, the lawsuit says. The state should also ensure that private lawyers - who are sometimes kept out of the hearings because of security or space concerns - also have access, Colbert said.

Added expense

Criminal suspects who are not represented at such hearings are "less likely to be released on their own recognizance, more likely to have higher and unaffordable bail, and more likely to ... pay the expense of a bail bondsman's non-refundable fee to regain their freedom," the suit states.

"Prolonged detention of many of the arrestees detained in Central Booking is costly, wasteful and often unnecessary," lawyers argue in the case.

The suit notes that prosecutors dismiss without trial or decline to prosecute 60 percent to 70 percent of the charges brought against Baltimore City defendants.

While a cost estimate for providing public defenders was not available yesterday, Colbert said past studies have shown that the expense would be more than offset by savings from reducing the number of people held in jail unnecessarily.

"With representation from the outset, many people would not be spending unnecessary time in jail and taxpayers would not be spending huge sums for people who should be released pending trial," Colbert said.

Earlier attempts

Colbert has long argued for reforms to the way Maryland handles bail for criminal suspects, but he said past attempts to make changes through legislation have been thwarted in the General Assembly by bail bond interests.

William E. Nolan, general counsel to the Maryland Public Defender's Office, said the agency was reviewing the suit yesterday and was not prepared to comment.

David W. Weissert, who oversees district court commissioners in Maryland, also said he wanted to review the suit more closely before commenting.

Colbert said he anticipates opposition from the bail bond industry because it profits from the current system.

As an example, he said, the bail for the lead plaintiff in the lawsuit, who was arrested for a misdemeanor drug offense, was set at $25,000. His family had had to pay a bail bondsman a 10 percent nonrefundable fee, or $2,500, to secure his release.

"It's excessive and far outside the ballpark of a reasonable bail," Colbert said. "His family paid $2,500 so he could get out of jail and go to work."

Even if individuals accused of a crime eventually are released after a bail review hearing, the suit notes, their detention "may result in missed work, loss of jobs, disruption of family life, or eviction from homes."

The suit says conditions at Central Booking are "overcrowded, harsh, and sometimes dangerous. ... Without an attorney, plaintiff's requests for needed medical treatment or for transfer to a safer location are much more likely to be ignored."

About 250 to 275 suspects are processed at Central Booking each day, the suit says, and the facility is often at or beyond capacity.

"At times, arrestees may share a small cell meant for a few people with as many as 10 to 15 individuals in extremely cramped quarters," the suit states.

The suit, which names Chief District Court Judge Ben C. Clyburn and several other court officials as defendants, claims failing to provide lawyers at bail hearings violates provisions of the Maryland and federal constitutions, as well as the Maryland Public Defender Act.

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