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An Overview of the Criminal Process in Maryland

Explained by a Baltimore Criminal Defense Attorney

Criminal investigations and charges originate several ways in Maryland. Most commonly, a citizen files a complaint directly with a police officer under exigent circumstances. For example, if two individuals are out at a bar and get into an altercation, the police are called and one may wish to charge the other one with assault. The same complaint occurs during domestic assault cases when family members get into some kind of argument at home and the police are called. The police arrive at the house and have probable cause to enter and see if there were any disturbances or if everyone is okay.

The police will then interview both people and determine whether or not criminal charges will be filed. If the police decline to charge, then it is up to the individuals to charge via a commissioner. Many times police decline to charge for any “on scene” scenario and they will simply advise the individual to go to the commissioner at the local district court.

What is the Difference Between Police & Commissioners?

If one person declines to press charges at the scene, that doesn’t mean that the police won’t arrest and charge the other. This occurs often in a domestic situation. After the initial anger subsides, the person making the allegation doesn’t want the other arrested, but the police still make the arrest. They do so on the theory that if a crime has been committed, it’s still their duty to arrest and file a criminal charge.

The law indicates that if a police officer sees a misdemeanor or felony occurring in front of them, they are obligated to arrest and begin the criminal process. If a police officer has reasonable suspicion or probable cause that a misdemeanor or felony has occurred before, they also have an obligation to file criminal charges or make an arrest. Usually, past felony investigations are reserved for other types of police officers, such as detectives and administrative investigators.

What Is a Commissioner?

Another method of charging a crime is when individuals wish to file charges against another and they do so by going to see a commissioner. Commissioners are judicial officers appointed to act as individuals who may initiate criminal charges or issue declarations such as protective orders and peace orders.

A good example is when an aggrieved victim goes to a commissioner and claims that an aggressor and the potential defendant committed a crime against them. The commissioner must make an assessment by law to determine if, based upon the circumstances presented, a crime may have occurred. It’s not the commissioner’s job to show that a crime actually occurred beyond a reasonable doubt. They are not a judge nor a jury.

A commissioner’s role is to:

  • Look at the facts of a case
  • Assess the person’s credibility
  • Determine whether the elements of the crime have been met

If so, the commissioner may issue a summons or a warrant on a charging document in the district court. During this procedure, a complainant or victim must actually write out a statement of facts about the alleged crime and how it occurred. The commissioner will make their determination based on those written facts, which become evidence to be used later by a criminal defense attorney.

Hire a Baltimore Criminal Defense from Our Skilled Team

At the Law Offices of James E. Crawford, Jr. & Associates, our firm often tells people that it is very easy for anyone to go to a commissioner or the police and make up an allegation. It really isn’t the commissioner or the police officer’s duty to make absolutely sure that the charges are true or false. They are not there to judge as to whether or not the crime actually occurred. They are there to push it into the criminal justice system for that allegation to be pursued through the process.

Many times people are very upset and angry because they feel as if someone has falsely accused them and they don’t understand the process. Our firm hears all the time, “How could this happen and how could someone simply make up something about me and obtain criminal charges?” We tell them it is very easy for someone to make up facts and to try to procure a criminal charge. However, as the process continues, it is very difficult for an individual to make the allegations stick if they are false. Yes, there are in fact many ways to prove the crime alleged didn’t occur.

Have you been accused of the crime and need help fighting back against these criminal charges? Call our aggressive criminal defense lawyers at (443) 709-9999.

What Is a Grand Jury?

Another very common method of charging someone for a crime is through the use of a grand jury. A grand jury consists of 24 individuals who will sit in a jury room in the circuit court of the counties in Maryland or federal court and make a determination as to whether or not a crime may have occurred. A defendant is usually not involved with or allowed to be in the grand jury room and it is almost entirely run by the prosecutor’s office. The government’s office will present evidence to the grand jury, usually via the detective or police officer that has knowledge of the crime and most of the time, the grand jury will indict.

Many people have heard the phrase “You can indict a ham sandwich”. From the standpoint that the only evidence presented is by the state or federal prosecutor, that saying is very true. Usually, grand juries will go along with what is being presented. After the grand jury indicts, the process proceeds into an actual case. Everyone deserves legal representation through every step of a criminal case. If you or a loved one have been accused of a crime in Baltimore, find out how the Law Offices of James E. Crawford, Jr. & Associates can advocate for you.

Brought Up On a “Criminal Information” Charge?

A less common form of a charging document is something called the “criminal information form”. This is a situation where the state attorney’s office decides to file criminal charges directly against the defendant. This happens when criminal charges are filed in the circuit court as opposed to the lower district court. This is a tool that state attorneys use to get around various defense strategies, such as the preliminary hearing stage.

The thing to remember is that almost all criminal charges start in the district court. Even a homicide charge or very serious rape charge starts in the district court. Baltimore’s district court has a program system that has “tied together” every district court throughout the state of Maryland. The circuit court has the ability to use the same system but to a lesser degree.

What to Know about a Preliminary Hearing

If a defendant is charged with a felony, then the defendant has an absolute right to a preliminary hearing. A preliminary hearing is a process where a district court judge will listen to evidence presented by the state’s attorney’s office to determine if there is enough evidence for the case to continue to the circuit court. In other words, the judge must figure out whether the allegations could have occurred.

The theory is as follows: Suppose you lived in a small town in somewhere in Maryland. You grew up in a situation where the local sheriff really didn’t like your family or had some problem with you individually. The sheriff for a long time has harassed you and charged you with false crimes for personal reasons. Who can stop him? The preliminary hearing is designed to prevent police abuse and state authority carelessness. If there is probable cause or even a scintilla of evidence that a case or an incident could not have occurred, the district court judge at the preliminary hearing should dismiss the charges.

Why Criminal Defense Matters in a Preliminary Hearing

You may be asking yourself, “What is the real purpose of a preliminary hearing and does it do any good?” The answer is an unequivocal yes. The Law Offices of James E. Crawford, Jr. & Associates had a case in western Maryland a few years ago where a defendant was charged with very serious drug distribution charges. In fact, the number of drugs involved was worth hundreds of thousands of dollars. `The state declined to indict and we actually had a full preliminary hearing.

At the preliminary hearing, the state attorney’s office must present evidence, but the defendant cannot present evidence nor testify. Their attorney cross-examines the witnesses presented by the state to establish probable cause that a crime had occurred.

In this particular situation, the state presented a senior police officer who had investigated the charge. The officer testified that they had recovered a very large amount of narcotics in the individual’s home. They spent a considerable amount of time talking about how it was discovered and also what the end result was. Finally, the state was obligated to present the fact that the alleged narcotics were actually a controlled dangerous substance prohibited by the state of Maryland. In other words, they had to show lab results that the drugs were illegal.

After a lengthy cross-examination about how and where this occurred, our firm asked a few simple questions about the type of drugs our client was alleged to distribute. We analyzed the lab results of the drugs that were seized and noticed that in the lab results report, it stated that all the narcotics recovered were heroin. The officer testified that the drugs recovered were, in fact, cocaine. Since this officer made a misstatement and categorized the testimony differently from the lab result equated to a complete dismissal of the felony charges.

Assault Charges in a Preliminary Hearing – Case Dismissed!

Our firm handles many domestic violence cases and quite often the state will charge the defendant with the first-degree assault as well as second-degree assault. When an individual is charged with multiple counts in the district court and some of them are felonies, only the felonies are subjected to the preliminary hearing review.

The difference between first-degree assault and second-degree assault in the state of Maryland is something very important:

  • First-degree assault: A very serious assault, usually involving a weapon or some sort of choking which puts the victim close to a paralysis or death
  • Second-degree assault: Unlawful touching and can be serious, but usually is not life-threatening

This particular defendant was charged with first-degree assault and after cross-examining the police officer, it was shown that there were no possible threats of death even though some strangulation occurred. Based upon that, the felony first-degree assault charge was dismissed.

Call (443) 709-9999 for Legal Representation During a Criminal Case

If a defendant is charged with multiple counts in the district court, the case will stay in the district court if the felony charges are dismissed. If there is probable cause shown in a preliminary hearing, then the case will be moved to the circuit court including all the “tag along” misdemeanors.

A very common theme and strategy of the state attorney’s office is for them to indict the individual prior to the preliminary hearing. The state attorney’s office will do that if they believe the defendant may have a chance or opportunity to get rid of the felonies. That puts the state in a situation where they have more leverage at the circuit court because the felonies are still alive and the defendant has to deal with all the charges.

The “criminal information” method of charging someone is seen less but it gives the state the ability to have the case put directly to the circuit court to give them more leverage. A defendant needs to determine whether or not their case has a chance for staying in the district court and if it does not, and it proceeds in the circuit court, what type of strategy can be used. Your lawyer should have an in-depth understanding of each charge and all the various associated elements. A criminal defense lawyer needs to have an inclination about judges and prosecutor’s habits in certain cases.

At the Law Offices of James E. Crawford, Jr. & Associates, we offer free initial consultations for our clients wrongfully accused of criminal charges. With over 25 years of experience, you have dedicated advocates on your side. Reach out as soon as possible.

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