Wheels of justice skid to a stop

About 1,000 criminal cases delayed in Baltimore after snow forces court closings

February 10, 2010|By Tricia Bishop | tricia.bishop@baltsun.com

Defendants awaiting bail reviews are spending extra nights in jail because of court closures throughout the state, and the delays are expected to continue as the second storm in a week dumps another layer of snow across the region today.

The closings are particularly burdensome in Baltimore, where the overstressed system already defers hundreds of court cases daily.

About 1,000 criminal cases have been postponed in the city since Friday, with 400 or so added to the count each day that district and circuit courts are closed, according to a Baltimore Sun review. Courts were shut in nine counties and the city Tuesday, and more closures are likely today.

Public defenders and state prosecutors said they are still trying to get things done despite closed offices.

Assistant State's Attorney Julie Drake, chief of the felony family violence division, transformed her dining room into a home office to prepare for trial. Defense attorneys are working the phones to prepare their clients.

And at least one charging division prosecutor made it into the city with help from two National Guard-driven Humvees at the height of the storm last weekend to review new arrest cases and make bail recommendations, said Margaret T. Burns, a spokeswoman for the Baltimore state's attorney's office.

A 2001 administrative order signed by Court of Appeals Chief Judge Robert M. Bell lays out who can close courts and why. Administrative judges at the circuit and district courts make the call in each jurisdiction, taking into account the "welfare and safety of citizens and of court staff," including jurors. About 300 jurors are called to court in Baltimore daily, said Maryland judiciary spokesman Darrell Pressley.

"In making this decision, a judge is to be mindful of the fact that the courts labor under a heavy burden of cases and that it can be seriously disruptive to litigants, witnesses, victims and others if a court or clerk's office is evacuated or closed unnecessarily," Bell's order states. "Every effort should be made not to close a court or office unless absolutely essential."

No hearings or bail reviews can go forward when courts are closed. And the likelihood of gaining a conviction drops with each postponement, as witnesses move from the area and recollections fade.

There's also no guarantee that new trial dates, which will likely be scheduled for months down the road, will be kept. In city Circuit Court, where more serious crimes are prosecuted and jury trials held, all cases have a strong chance of being put off at any time for various reasons: Lab reports often aren't ready; lawyers have scheduling conflicts; or there simply aren't any open courtrooms.

Baltimore District Court postpones nearly 45 percent of its criminal cases annually, according to 2009 statistics, and Circuit Court postponements are on a par with that, officials said.

The snow cancellations just make everything worse. About 270 cases - criminal, misdemeanor appeals, domestic and civil - were on the city Circuit Court's daily docket for Tuesday, and all are now delayed, causing a domino effect.

"It delays justice," Burns said.

On any given weekday, corrections officers transport hundreds of inmates to trials and hearings across the state. But most of their vans were parked Tuesday because many courts were closed. The division of pretrial detention and services averages 275 detainee transports daily, said Mark Vernarelli, a spokesman for the Department of Public Safety and Correctional Services. So far this week, it's been 20 a day.

The closed courts ensure that some imprisoned defendants won't get speedy trials and others who would have been freed in court will spend extra days locked up. Vernarelli said 136 inmates in the central region around Baltimore had had their hearings canceled because of the court closures as of Tuesday.

"The weather has created a real backlog," Vernarelli said in an e-mail.

At the Baltimore City Detention Center, defendants picked up for crimes over the weekend are also on hold, sitting in cells as they await bail hearings. Juvenile defendants who were supposed to be transferred out of the adult lockup system will have to wait, and criminals out on bail will have more time on the streets before being convicted, said Linwood Hedgepeth, a supervising attorney at the Baltimore Public Defender's Office.

"It cuts both ways," he said. Hedgepeth has been connecting with clients via telephone and said he hadn't had any trials postponed because of the weather. His next case is scheduled Friday, and he's ready to take it forward, assuming that the courts are open and rooms available.

"A lot of clients want to go to trial right now, and they get very frustrated," he said.

For up-to-date information on court closures, go to mdcourts.gov/infoline.html

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