These hearings “are indoors for extended periods of time in contravention to the now-universal guidance to avoid such interactions unless essential,” he said in a letter to Chief Judge Mary Ellen Barbera. “My staff has been on the frontlines providing representation in criminal cases, and exposing themselves to increased risk of contracting the virus” at in-person hearings on “nuisance” matters.
“In Charles County, a recent docket included four individuals charged with failing to pay restitution,” DeWolfe wrote. Another case involved “a 2019 theft charge for $2. Howard County attorneys have seen numerous cases for driving on a suspended license where the license is no longer suspended. . . . Virtually every county has had similar cases, some with judges and court staff who have tested positive for covid.”
Unlike Maryland circuit courts, where felony cases are tried, district courts handle less-serious matters, without juries.
“I urge you to require that in-person . . . misdemeanor proceedings that do not involve an incarcerated client or domestic violence be postponed” until the pandemic ends, DeWolfe told Barbera.
In early October, Maryland’s court system began operating somewhat normally for the first time since the pandemic began. Under the fifth phase of a progressive reopening, courts were allowed to abandon virtual hearings in favor of in-person courtroom interactions with mask-wearing and social distancing.
Amid the fall surge in cases of the novel coronavirus, however, Barbera this month ordered the judicial system to revert to Phase 3 of the reopening, meaning that certain restrictions were reimposed, including a return to online video proceedings in some cases and a halt to jury trials in circuit court through the end of the year.
Suzanne Delaney Pelz, a spokeswoman for the chief judge, declined to comment on DeWolfe’s Nov. 19 letter or on district court operations since Barbera’s Phase 3 order took effect Nov 16. Melissa Rothstein, a spokeswoman for DeWolfe, said Tuesday that Barbera had not yet replied to the letter.
Not all Maryland district courts are functioning as DeWolfe described. Last week, for example, the administrative judge in charge of Baltimore District Court ordered an indefinite postponement of all criminal cases involving defendants who are not in jail. For those who are incarcerated, she ordered video hearings.
Elsewhere, though, two public defenders, in Montgomery and Prince George’s counties, were exposed to the coronavirus while representing clients charged with trespassing and a traffic offense, respectively, the letter said.
“While covid has created life-threatening dangers for those with a medical condition or other vulnerability, increased risks for getting to court for those who rely on public transportation, and confusion over whether attending court is appropriate or even permitted during the shutdown orders, district court judges continue to issue bench warrants for failure to appear,” DeWolfe wrote.