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Md.'s High Court Rules On Right To Attorney At Bail Hearings

ANNAPOLIS, Md. (AP) -- Maryland's highest court ruled on Wednesday that poor defendants are entitled to have an attorney present at bail hearings.

The 4-3 ruling marked the second time the Maryland Court of Appeals decided that defendants are entitled to state-furnished counsel at those initial hearings before a district court commissioner, because the defendant's liberty is at stake. The judges in the majority noted that suspects, unless released on their own recognizance, will remain incarcerated until a bail review hearing before a judge.

That can take days in some cases.

"As numerous briefs to this court pointed out, the failure of a commissioner to consider all the facts relevant to a bail determination can have devastating effects on the arrested individuals," the judges wrote in the majority decision.

Last year, in response to an earlier ruling by the court, the Maryland General Assembly changed the law so lawyers would not have to be present at bail hearings. The law was changed largely due to the estimated cost of $28 million a year to comply.

In a dissenting opinion to Wednesday's court ruling, Judges Mary Ellen Barbera, Glenn Harrell Jr., and Sally Adkins wrote that the initial bail hearing does not result in a final determination of incarceration because no decision is made by a commissioner that will lead to a defendant languishing in custody without review.

"The changes adopted by the majority today will assuredly alter the commissioner hearing from an informal process into a mini-trial, all of which can be repeated again before a district court judge within 24 hours if the outcome is not favorable to the defendant," the dissenting judges wrote.

(Copyright 2013 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)

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