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Initial Appearances:  Understanding the Basics

Initial Appearances: Understanding the Basics

When someone is arrested in Maryland, they are taken before a judicial officer for an initial appearance. This is their first chance to win their release and begin to fight the charges.

What is an Initial Appearance?

Once the police officer completes the booking process, he or she will bring the accused before a District Court Commissioner. A District Court Commissioner is not a judge.  In fact, they are not even attorneys and the only job requirement is that they possess a college degree.  However, they are still considered judicial officers and given a great degree of power.  The proceeding following an arrest is called an initial appearance because it is the accused person’s first time before a judicial officer to address the charge(s) against him or her. The initial appearance serves several important purposes:

  • Make a determination as to whether there is probable cause that the accused committed the alleged offense(s)
  • Offer the accused the opportunity to be represented by a free appointed attorney for their initial appearance
  • Advise the accused of the charge(s) against him or her and the maximum possible penality(ies)
  • Advise to accused that he or she has a right to a private attorney or a public defender if the accused cannot afford to hire a private attorney
  • Provide the accused with a copy of his or her charging document
  • Make a determination as to pre-trial release status of the accused after evaluating a variety of factors

What is the Role of the District Court Commissioner?

The primary role of the District Court Commissioner is to carry out the purposes that are listed above, especially that of making a preliminary determination as to the pre-trial release status of the accused.

The following are not the proper roles of a District Court Commissioner:

  • Provide legal advice to the accused
  • Make a determination as to the guilt or innocence of the accused
  • Make inappropriate and/or discriminatory comments about the accused
  • Suggest that the accused waive or give up any of his or her legal rights
  • Make any comments or suggestions as to what will happen to the accused at trial

If any of the above actions occur at your initial appearance, you should document everything thoroughly and report them to a supervisor and contact a private attorney or public defender.

Pre-Trial Release: The Decision Process

Recent changes in Maryland law are designed to encourage the release of the accused on his or her personal recognizance when possible.  A District Court Commissioner generally has the discretion to release the accused on his or her own personal recognizance, set a secured or unsecured bail that must be posted for the accused to be released, or hold the accused without bail.  In making this important decision, the District Court Commissioner is supposed to consider several factors, including the following:

  • The seriousness and nature of the alleged offense(s)
  • The factual allegations against the accused; in particular, whether the allegations suggest that the release of the accused would pose a danger to the accused, any alleged victim(s), any witness(es) and/or police officer(s), or the general public
  • The strength and weight of the evidence against the accused
  • The maximum possible penalty(ies) of the charge(s)
  • Whether the accused has previously failed to appear for court or otherwise poses a flight risk
  • The accused's ties to the community - including family members of the accused who reside in the State of Maryland, whether the accused is employed, and whether the accused resides in the State of Maryland
  • Any other factors that are authorized by law

In some cases, the District Court Commissioner may be prohibited by law from releasing the accused or setting any amount of bail.  However, in cases where bail is authorized by law, the District Court Commissioner is constitutionally prohibited from setting a bail that is unreasonable.

How an Experienced Criminal Defense Attorney Can Help

Remember that the accused has a right to request and receive an appointed attorney for free at an initial appearance.  However, not all of the appointed attorneys are experienced criminal defense attorneys who are familiar with criminal law and procedure.  And the old adage, “you get what you pay for,” sadly holds weight with some appointed attorneys.  Your best bet is to have an experienced Baltimore County criminal defense attorney at your side.  A criminal defense attorney can help you in the following ways:

  • Make sure that the District Court Commissioner follows the law and respects your legal rights
  • Point out weaknesses in the factual allegations against the accused
  • Provide verified information to the District Court Commissioner that favors pre-trial release
  • Ensure that the accused does not make any incriminating statements
  • Explain why the accused does not pose a flight risk
  • Explain why the accused does not pose a danger to himself or herself or anyone else

If you are arrested and taken before a District Court Commissioner, get qualified legal help.  Contact our office immediately and get the experienced legal champion that you deserve!

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