Last year I spent roughly 1000 hours in Maryland District Court while criminal dockets were being called. That’s a conservative estimate. The real number is probably higher. Much of that time was spent waiting for my cases to be called. I believe that, based on an average of six cases called per hour, in 2012 I likely saw somewhere in the neighborhood of 6000 Maryland District Court cases. Among those cases were serious traffic matters like DUI and DWI, and other criminal cases like CDS possession, marijuana possession, firearms crimes, trespassing, disorderly conduct, assault, domestic violence, violation of protection order, theft, shoplifting, and burglary. I’ve seen cases tried in Maryland District Court and I’ve seen them resolved by a plea agreement. I’ve also seen cases dismissed or otherwise resolved by preliminary action on the part of the state’s attorney. What follows is a list of some of the most common mistakes I see defendants make in Maryland District Court and a few words about how you can avoid making them.
Mistake 1. Going to court without knowing what is going to happen. District Court moves fast. Much of the work on your case should be done before you appear in front of the judge. If you’re going to court and you don’t know whether you’re headed for a trial or a plea then you’re doing it wrong. Prepare. Have your lawyer communicate with the state’s attorney.
Mistake 2. Wearing sweatpants. Instead you should wear church clothes. When you look like you respect the court and respect yourself, it’s more likely that the judge will respect you! Please understand that the presiding judge will make an important decision that will have a serious impact on your life. You could be sentenced to jail. You could be placed on probation. You could be sentenced to pay a large fine or to pay restitution. The judge will have only a few minutes to make his or her decision. You should do everything in your power to get benefit of the doubt. Pro Tip: if the charging document in your case describes the suspect as wearing blue jeans, red sneakers, a gray hoodie, and a yellow baseball cap then do not wear that particular outfit to court. You’d be surprised. This actually happens.
Mistake 3. Entering a plea deal on a single case when you have multiple open cases. I’ve seen this mistake many times. Usually the defendant is representing himself. After entering a plea deal in one case, he shows up to court on his other case looking for another deal. But then he finds himself in front of a different judge and with a worse-looking record. This means he is in a terrible position to bargain. Sometimes the defendant will erroneously assume that the second case was resolved with the plea agreement for the first case. This incorrect assumption may cause him to miss his court date for the second case. What comes next is usually a bench warrant and a violation of probation. As a general rule: provided the second case is of a similar nature and is set for the same court, the prudent thing to do is to consider consolidating the two cases for a plea.
Mistake 4. Assuming the state’s attorney has enough evidence to win. I see this all of the time: unrepresented defendants check in with the state and ask what they should do. The state’s attorney typically gives an offer for a plea deal and says that they’re not able to give the defendant legal advice. The unrepresented defendant then usually takes the deal. The unrepresented defendant doesn’t bother to look at the state’s evidence, doesn’t request discovery materials, doesn’t know if the drugs were tested, doesn’t know if the necessary witnesses are present –the unrepresented defendant is just happy to get the case over with. More often than not the deal he takes could have been better. Sometimes the case could have been resolved in his favor with just a little bit of work.
Mistake 5. Assuming that the police won’t show up and that the case will therefore be dismissed. It mostly doesn’t work that way anymore. Many Maryland District Courts now use a “working and available” policy. That means that the police don’t need to be in the courtroom when your case is called in order for the state to go forward with the case. If they’ve checked in that morning, or if the state’s attorney can represent to the court that they’re available for a trial if you call for one, then the state is ready to proceed. When the state says they’re ready, it’s up to you to say what you want to do. Do you want a trial or are you willing to enter a plea agreement?
Mistake 6. Assuming you don’t need a lawyer because you expect to enter a plea deal. Just knowing that you want a plea agreement is only half the battle. How will you know what your case is worth? There is a big difference between a $100 fine and two years of supervised probation with a two year suspended sentence. I routinely see the same offense punished both ways. CDS cases in particular seem to have a very wide range of possible sentences. Traffic cases are the same way. Sometimes a first-time driving suspended case gets the defendant a PBJ and a small fine. Other times, a similar case brings a guilty finding, points on the defendant’s license, and a period of supervised probation. A good lawyer knows how to maximize the chance that you’ll get a better outcome.
Mistake 7. Underestimating the difficulty of doing probation. Defendants often sign up for probation without asking about the terms and without knowing the downside. Some of these defendants appear not to be compatible with probation. Everyone seems to know it but them. I also see these defendants, usually unrepresented, when they come back in front of the court for their probation violations. Many times they are incarcerated for their first violation. Often the underlying offenses were minor and possibly could have been resolved with something other than probation or jail.
Mistake 8. Expecting to get a postponement to hire a lawyer. Many of the judges I see regularly do not give postponements to unrepresented defendants on their first court date in order to allow them to hire counsel. Keep in mind that you have probably already signed a document as a part of the booking process that says you understand that you will not be given a postponement in the event you show up without a lawyer.
Mistake 9. Arriving to court late. If they call your case when you aren’t there then you will very likely get a bench warrant with a high bail or with no bail at all. Even if the judge puts your case to the side and recalls it after you arrive, you’re still left in a really bad position. Your tardiness makes you look irresponsible. It makes you look like someone who doesn’t respect the court. You could possibly find yourself in a situation where the judge won’t let you do anything but sign up for probation. That’s not exactly in accordance with the rules, but that’s how Maryland District Court works. Judges have wide latitude to do what they please.
Mistake 10. Basing a defense on “she wants to drop the charges.” Probably a third of the 6000 cases I saw last year were domestic related. These cases included assaults, malicious destruction cases, peace order violations, and other crimes. There is a commonly held misconception that having the victim appear to “drop the charges” will cause the state’s attorney to dismiss the case. In my experience it usually does not work. The state’s attorney will usually tell her that she must testify. The state’s attorney will often look for a way to prove the case without using her as a witness. Most people involved in the process will assume that she doesn’t want to testify because she is covering up for you or has been intimidated by you. Defending a recanting witness case or a reluctant witness case requires skill and subtlety. Attempting to defend a recanting witness case without a lawyer pretty much never works.
Mistake 11. Coming to court without a lawyer. You probably knew I was going to include this one. Have you ever noticed that when lawyers get in trouble they always hire other lawyers to handle their defenses? There are reasons for this. Even if you know the law, the rules of evidence, the local courts, and the people involved in prosecuting your case, it is most unwise to handle your own defense.
Matthew Baum is a Maryland attorney with offices in Baltimore, Catonsville, and in Columbia. He can be reached at (410) 929-3435. He offers free consultations in all criminal and serious traffic cases. He is prepared to aggressively defend your rights with a trial or to work on securing the very best possible plea agreement for your case.