Court commissioner role questioned

High court ruling shines a spotlight on the office, Maryland delegate seeks to limit powers

January 08, 2012|By Tricia Bishop, The Baltimore Sun

At 10 a.m. on a recent weekday, roughly a half-dozen District Court commissioners were individually processing 120 arrestees at Baltimore's Central Booking and Intake Center, and making big decisions about whether to set bail or release the accused with instructions to come to court when called.

They work out of tiny concrete cells in the detention center, similar to those packed with waiting prisoners. For protection, they have a window partition between them and the defendant, who is locked in during the proceeding.

The specifics of what they talked about is anyone's guess. Reporters and the public aren't allowed inside the Baltimore hearings, even though the process is supposed to be open. But the purpose of the discussion is known: The commissioners explain the criminal charges and try to quickly assess whether a defendant is a danger to the public or a flight risk.

It's a powerful position that requires little training, no law degree and largely goes unnoticed by the public. But a recent ruling by Maryland's highest court has thrust the commissioners into the spotlight. And some legislators and lawyers are asking whether the system should be changed.

"I think that most of the things that a commissioner does should be done by a judge," said Del. Curtis S. Anderson, who chairs the House Criminal Justice subcommittee. He's drafting a bill that would take away warrant power from the state's 240 commissioners, who in addition to setting bail, can order someone's arrest based on another citizen's word.

But others claim the judicial officers are a necessary component of an overworked court system. They're required to be on duty all day every day "for the convenience of the public and police in obtaining charging documents, warrants or criminal summonses and to advise arrested persons of their rights as required by law," according to the Maryland Code.

"If they took away the commissioners, the work would fall to the judges," said David Weissert, coordinator of commissioner activity for Maryland's 12 court districts. And in that hypothetical case, he said, "justice only applies five days a week, eight hours a day" — or judges would have to start working round the clock.

Critical stage

The commissioners' work, which takes place quietly in detention centers and district courthouses throughout the state, was highlighted Wednesday by the Maryland Court of Appeals.

The high court ruled that a defendant's initial appearance before a commissioner is a critical stage of criminal prosecution, and ordered the Maryland Public Defender's Office to immediately begin representing indigent defendants at the nearly 200,000 bail hearings each year. It's unlikely that the mandate can be carried out any time soon, however, because the defender's office doesn't have the resources, according to its chief.

That's led some to take a closer look at what commissioners do. They're typically the first judicial officer a person sees after being arrested, and they hold a suspect's pre-trial freedom in their hands.

"A big problem here, is we have no idea what takes place at the commissioner hearings," said Douglas Colbert, director of the Access to Justice Clinic at the University of Maryland School of Law.

His students have been fighting for public defender representation at commissioner hearings since 1997, and they were elated by Wednesday's ruling. But he said there is still work to be done based on their observances.

"There are certainly individual commissioners who do a very good job under trying circumstances, but the system of justice needs considerable improvement," Colbert said.

The circumstances are difficult, according to Weissert's telling.

Commissioners, who are paid between $44,000 and $65,000 a year, work eight-hour shifts with no lunch break, and they don't earn overtime, even when they're forced to stay and finish the work. They work holidays and weekends.

"We never stop, just never … we're holding hearings all the time," Weissert said. Commissioners see tens of thousands of criminal defendants each year. And they issue roughly 77,000 charging documents and accompanying warrants annually, about half for police and the other half for citizens.

'Makes no sense'

The latter category concerns Anderson.

"Currently, if a police officer wants a search and seizure warrant, he's got to go to a judge, a judge who has been to law school," said Anderson, who worked his way through college as a commissioner.

"Yet a private citizen, who might be motivated by a grudge or something else, can go to a court commissioner, who doesn't even have to finish college, and get a warrant to put another person in jail," he said. "To me, that makes no sense."

In Baltimore, the state's attorney created a panel in late June that reviews such citizen complaints and commissioner warrants so prosecutors can quickly recall those that may not appear to have merit.

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