The Maryland court system seeks to provide justice and equality while upholding the principles of the US Constitution. Everyone deserves a fair chance to argue their case, present evidence and witnesses, and have a jury of their peer judge their guilt or innocence.
Whether you are a student or aspiring lawyer, you probably have a ton questions about the legal decisions from 2017. The year is more than half over and a lot has changed across the state and nation. Many people, even well-informed citizens, can be confused by the complicated legal jargon. Don’t worry! This guide will answer a few of the most pressing questions you have!
How Exactly Does the Justice System Work in Maryland?
The court system in Maryland works similar to the rest of the states and follows the principles of the US Constitution. Every person arrested is assumed innocent until determined guilty by a jury in a court of law. The 6th Amendment entitles everyone to a fair and speedy trial. In many parts of the world, someone is just thrown in prison and has no chance to defend themselves legally. America gives everyone, regardless of the allegations, the ability to argue their case and convince their peers of their innocence by presenting evidence and witnesses.
After police arrest someone, they bring them to the station for processing and fingerprinting. Before going to a judge, the state will usually offer a “plea bargain”, meaning the accused will plead guilty in exchange for a lower sentencing.
At the pretrial meeting with the judge, the accused states if they are guilty or not guilty. If they choose “not guilty”, the judge sets a date for the trial. The person can then pay bail money and go home or decide to stay in jail until the trial starts.
In a trial, the state is represented by the prosecution lawyers. The accused can hire a lawyer or choose to represent themselves. If they cannot afford a lawyer, then the 6th Amendment says the state must provide them a lawyer.
Both sides present their case and take turns cross examining witnesses and evidence. They will try to convince a jury, or team of 12 randomly selected citizens, of the person’s guilt or innocence. In the end, the jury will privately deliberate and present their decision, which must be unanimous. The judge then will give a sentence, such as a prison time, fine, or community service. The defendant’s lawyers can still appeal, or try to reverse, the case outcome through higher levels of the court, if they believe, for example, the judge misapplied the law.
In Maryland, you can also plead “not guilty with an agreed statement of facts”. In these cases, the accused claims innocence but signs a written declaration of facts regarding the case. Typically, signing such agreements favors the state. For example, in a DUI case, police may get the accused to sign a document admitting they had alcohol in their system, then the defense would likely be forced to argue they fit the lesser charge of driving while under the influence of alcohol (DWI).
Is Jury Duty Really Mandatory? Why is it So Important Anyway?
Yes! According to the Constitution, every accused person enjoys the right to a jury trial. This process ensures that a case is decided by an unbiased, diverse group of average citizens, instead of a state judge. Every citizen has the obligation and privilege to serve on a jury. It is certainly an incredible responsibility, but you shouldn’t see it as a chore. In many cases, someone’s future is at stake! Put yourself in their shoes! If the state accused you of a serious crime, you would want a fair jury to hear your case.
You can, however, be exempt from a jury under certain circumstance. For instance, you will be dismissed from a jury selection pool if you are determined to be biased in the case, have a conflicting work schedule, or are physically unable to make it to the courthouse. Maryland randomly selects jury members among adult citizens who permanently reside in the state. You can only be chosen once per year.
What Were Some Important Maryland Court Decisions in 2017?
The outcomes of quite a few 2017 state cases will affect you personally! Always know your rights and stay informed. If you are in any legal trouble, you might want to know some of these decisions:
Norman v. State of Maryland
In 2014, the Maryland General Assembly decriminalized marijuana possession of fewer than 10 ounces by reclassifying it as a civil offense. In 2016, State Trooper Jon Dancho pulled over Joseph Norman, Jr. in for a traffic violation. Dancho detected the scent of marijuana and ordered Norman and the two other passengers to exit the vehicle. He then searched the car and frisked the passengers, uncovering the marijuana. Legally, the suspicion of a person being armed and dangerous is probable cause for a police search. Norman appealed his arrest on the grounds that the search was unconstitutional. The state court sided with the officer and argued that, regardless of the change in legal status, dangerous criminal activity has a strong association with marijuana. The Court of Appeals later clarified that the smell of drugs alone cannot justify a search and that totality of circumstances must determine probable cause. The state sentenced Norman to 9 months of imprisonment for possession during a traffic stop.
Outcome – Even a noncriminal amount of marijuana can justify a police search
Edwards v. State
In May of 2010, Richard Edwards claimed to be a security guard and asked Ms. K for a lighter. While parked in her car, she gave the man a lighter. Edwards then asked if he could use the vehicle door to shield him from the wind as he tried to light a cigarette. He then entered the car and, after some altercation, allegedly sexually assaulted Ms. K. Police later arrested him and the court convicted him of 1st-degree rape. During the investigation, police collected items from the car, including a Bic lighter, Forever 21 bag, and pack of cigarettes. The prosecution presented these items as evidence, but they were never DNA tested. Edwards protested in a post-conviction appeal claiming the items used as evidence could have been DNA tested to exonerate him. The conviction court denied his motion, citing that DNA evidence would not change the outcome of the case. Edwards appealed again to the Maryland Court of Appeals, which reversed this decision and stated that DNA results need not significantly alter the case outcome and exonerate the defendant, but need only mitigate the weight of evidence to be admitted.
Outcome – The standard to admit DNA evidence in criminal cases is now much broader. More sex offenders will likely appeal their cases now.
Court of Appeals New Bail Reform Policy
When the state charges you with a crime, typically you are placed in jail to await your trial. You can, however, pay a fee to be released, known as bail, that the state gives back to you the end of the trial. Last year, the Maryland state legislature passed extensive bail reform. The new policy, effective July 1st, will now no longer require jail time for any accused who cannot afford bail. Although, the law still permits judges to weigh this exception with public safety and the nature of the allegations. The court unanimously approved the legislation and declared it would be unconstitutional to keep someone in jail for no reason other than that they cannot afford bail.
Outcome – If you cannot afford bail, you may not have to serve jail time before your trial
Court of Special Appeals Opinion on Privacy
For several years now, state police have been using an electronic device known as “stingrays” to track cell phone calls and their locations, mimicking the function of a cell tower. After a series of lawyer challenging their use in lower courts, Maryland’s Court of Special Appeals condemned last spring their widespread use. They also ordered police must acquire a warrant and disclose to the public how the devices collect data. Blanket tracking of cell locations, the court ruled, violates the 4th Amendment to the US Constitution. In a statement, the panel of judges said, “People have a reasonable expectation that their cell phones will not be used as real-time tracking devices by law enforcement, and — recognizing that the Fourth Amendment protects people and not simply areas — that people have an objectively reasonable expectation of privacy in real-time cell phone location information.”
Outcome – police can not indiscriminately track cell phone locations without a warrant
How Can I Find and Read About More Court Cases from Maryland?
You can find most information online on Maryland Courts website. For example, you can a public record of most court proceedings, pay traffic tickets online, and download forms for civil claims and other documents.
If you are looking for more of a summary of appeal cases, you should check out the Justia Law website or similar sites.
What Happen Recently with the Kolbe v. Hogan Case?
Back in 2013, Maryland state legislature passed a law banned 45 assault rifles and placed a 10 round limit on magazine purchases. This weapon banned included the popular AK-47 and AR-15. Adopted in the aftermath of Newtown’s Sandy Hook shooting, many praised it as a progressive step in public safety. Maryland Attorney General Brian Frosh, then a state senator, called the banned firearms, “weapons of war.”
However, gun advocates sued the state government for violating their Constitutional right to bear arms under the 2nd Amendment. After the state courts had dismissed their claim, they appealed in the federal court system, citing the District of Columbia v. Heller precedent. The US 4th Circuit Court reversed the state position to reject the claim and agreed to reopen the case. The panel of judges ordered the state must apply a standard of “strict scrutiny” when limiting gun rights. In February of 2017, the federal court finally sided with the state of Maryland, the majority opinion stating, “Whatever their other potential, these weapons are unquestionably most useful in military service. That is, the banned assault weapons are designed to kill or disable the enemy on the battlefield.” The court agreed that citizens have the right to protect themselves with firearms, according to DC v. Heller, but that military grade weapons are only designed for combat and banning them from the public would not significantly affect a citizen’s personal safety.
To many, the outcome of Kolbe v. Hogan represents a horrendous attack on gun rights and a reversal of a trend in the federal courts. It’s possible the NRA and other organizations may further appeal the state law to the US Supreme Court. We’ll have to watch to see what develops!
- FindLaw’s Court of Appeals of Maryland case and opinions. (n.d.). Retrieved September 1, 2017, from http://caselaw.findlaw.com/md-court-of-appeals/1854464.html
- Stern, M. J., & Politi, D. (2017, February 21). Appeals Court Rules that Second Amendment Doesn’t Protect Right to Assault Weapons. Slate. Retrieved from http://www.slate.com/blogs/the_slatest/2017/02/21/appeals_court_holds_second_amendment_doesn_t_protect_assault_weapons.html
- Fenton, J. (2016, March 31). Maryland Appellate Court: Warrant Required for “Stingray” Phone Tracking. Retrieved September 1, 2017, from http://www.baltimoresun.com/news/maryland/crime/bs-md-ci-stingray-court-decision-20160331-story.html
- Dresser, M. (2017, February 8). Maryland Court of Appeals: Defendants can’t be held in jail because they can’t afford bail. Retrieved September 1, 2017, from http://www.baltimoresun.com/news/maryland/bs-md-bail-rule-20170207-story.html
- EvidenceProf Blog: The Court of Appeals of Maryland’s Landmark Ruling on Postconviction DNA Testing. (2017, March 26). Retrieved September 1, 2017, from http://lawprofessors.typepad.com/evidenceprof/2017/05/two-days-ago-the-court-of-appeals-of-maryland-issues-a-landmark-opinion-on-the-issue-of.html