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Law School Case Brief

DeWolfe v. Richmond - 434 Md. 444, 76 A.3d 1019 (2013)


A district court commissioner determines at an initial appearance, pursuant to Md. R. 4-216, whether a criminal defendant is eligible for pretrial release. If a defendant was arrested without a warrant, the commissioner determines whether there was probable cause for each charge and for the arrest. If there was no probable cause, the defendant is released with no conditions of release. If the commissioner finds that there was probable cause, Md. R. 4-216(f) details the numerous factors a commissioner must take into consideration when imposing on the defendant the least onerous condition or combination of conditions of release that serves the purposes of ensuring the appearance of the defendant, protecting the safety of the alleged victim, and ensuring that the defendant will not pose a danger to another person or to the community. These factors include, among other things, the nature and circumstances of the offense charged, the defendant's prior record of appearance at court proceedings, and the defendant's family ties, employment status, financial resources, reputation, character, and length of residence in the community and in the state. The recommendation of the State's Attorney and any information presented by the defendant or defendant's counsel also must be considered.


Plaintiffs, arrested for a “serious offense” as defined in the Public Defender Statute, § 16-101(h)(1)-(4), were detained at the Central Booking Jail in Baltimore City. Each was brought before a Commissioner for an initial appearance to statute and Maryland Rule 4-213. Thereafter, plaintiffs, alleging that they were denied Public Defender representation during the said initial appearance, filed a complaint against the defendants, i.e., the District Court of Maryland, the Chief Judge of the District Court of Maryland, the Administrative Judge of the District Court in Baltimore City, and several other District Court officials in Baltimore City. The plaintiffs asserted that the initial appearance proceeding, during which a District Court Commissioner would determine whether there was probable cause for the defendant's arrest if the arrest occurred without a warrant and whether an arrested individual was to be detained, or released on bail, or released on his or her own recognizance, was a critical stage of the criminal proceeding requiring state-furnished counsel under the provisions of the Public Defender Act, Maryland Code (2001, 2008 Repl. Vol., 2012 Supp.), §16-204(b)(2) of the Criminal Procedure Article. They also relied upon the Sixth Amendment to the United States Constitution and Article 21 of the Maryland Declaration of Rights. In addition, they argued that the failure to furnish counsel violated the due process protections of the Fourteenth Amendment to the United States Constitution and Article 24 of the Maryland Declaration of Rights. Plaintiffs sought a declaratory judgment and an injunction to enjoin the defendants from violating the plaintiffs' right to representation at initial appearances before District Court Commissioners.


Was an indigent criminal defendant entitled to state-furnished counsel at the defendant’s initial appearance before a District Court Commissioner?




The Court held that under the due process component of Md. Const. Decl. Rights art. 24, an indigent defendant had a right to state-furnished counsel at an initial appearance before a district court commissioner because the defendant was in custody and, absent release, would remain so until a review hearing before a judge, appointing counsel at the review hearing did not cure the constitutional defect of denying counsel at the initial appearance, and incarcerating a defendant as a result of a hearing at which the defendant was unrepresented, absent a waiver of counsel, was fundamentally unfair.

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