Finding out that a friend or loved one has been arrested is frightening and stressful, but having the feeling that you can’t do anything about it is worse. The laws applying to bail have changed drastically in Maryland over the last couple of years and understanding how to navigate around these laws could mean the difference between release and an extended stay at Baltimore City central booking or one of the state’s county jails. In most cases when a person is first arrested he or she will be taken before a district court commissioner who will check to see if there was probable cause for the arrest and who will then make a determination of release conditions. This usually happens within a few hours of the arrest, but some in some of the larger jurisdictions it could take longer.
Court commissioners are not judges, lawyers or even law school graduates, and they are not required to have any extensive legal training. A bachelor’s degree and county/ city residency are all that are required for the appointment to serve as a commissioner. The prerequisites to become a court commissioner are light and severely contrast with the power to put someone in jail by signing off on an arrest warrant or to keep someone in jail by denying bail. Thankfully around half of defendants are released on their own recognizance, and will regain their freedom within an hour or so of speaking with the commissioner. But the other half face the possibility of remaining in jail until their case is closed if the case is not handled properly.
As a friend or family member there is not much you can do to influence the court commissioner’s decision at the initial appearance because they are not public hearings. Defendants are afforded the right to have an attorney present when they go before the commissioner, so the best approach is to try to hire a lawyer immediately. Realistically though this is not always possible, and the first time you may hear about the arrest could be after the defendant sees the commissioner. Those that are denied release will be scheduled for a bail review in front of a district or circuit court judge the following business day. Most of these hearings take place by video, but the defendant has an absolute right to have a lawyer present. The first bail review is the best shot and in some cases the only chance before trial to secure release, so it’s incredibly important to be prepare beforehand and ready to argue at the hearing.