Criminal procedures are basically the same across the country, but there are significant differences in many states. The following briefly outlines the process a Maryland criminal defendant goes through when charged with a crime.
Arrests are made through a court-issued arrest warrant of by an officer. An officer can only arrest someone for a misdemeanor if the crime is observed or if based on probable cause.
If arrested, Miranda rights must be read to you. Miranda warnings include your right to remain silent, that anything you say will be used against you, that you have the right to have an attorney and to have one present during any questioning, and that an attorney will be appointed if you cannot afford one if the charge involves jail time.
After arrest, you will be photographed and fingerprinted, and all personal effects will be taken and inventoried before you are placed in a cell or holding area.
Release and Bail
A commissioner sets bail. If you cannot meet it, you can have a bail hearing within 24 hours or the next business day before a judge. Bail is determined upon the nature of the crime, your criminal history, employment situation, family, and possible danger of flight or of committing another crime if released. Bail can be met by cash or credit card, a pledge of real property, by intangible assets if posting property or by bond.
The Arraignment and Entering a Plea
For serious offenses, you may not enter a plea at the first appearance pending a preliminary hearing to see if probable cause exists to charge you. Otherwise, you will be charged at the arraignment held within 24 hours of your arrest and asked to enter one of the following pleas:
- Guilty — You admit to all charges and are subject to whatever the judge decides is an appropriate sentence.
- Not Guilty — You are willing to hold the state to its burden of proof.
- Nolo Contendre — You are not disputing the charges, but the court treats this as a a guilty plea. Your plea cannot be used against you in a later civil suit.
Negotiating a Plea Bargain
Most criminal cases are disposed of before trial by negotiating a plea. Even with overwhelming evidence against them, defendants often can receive a lesser sentence or a dismissal of more serious charges if they plead guilty early in the process.
Maryland Preliminary Hearing Procedure/Grand Jury
Serious criminal defendants have their preliminary hearings before a District Court commissioner, which must be requested within 10 days of their first appearance before the commissioner. At the hearing, a defendant will be asked if he understands the charges and penalties and right to an attorney. The commissioner determines based on evidence presented only by the prosecutor if there is probable cause to charge a defendant.
If the charges stand, you will be arraigned and asked to enter a plea. In some cases, a grand jury may indict you if you have a serious matter, which must be tried in Circuit Court. If you are indicted, no preliminary hearing will be set.
Trial, Venue and Sentencing
If your charge is punishable by jail of more than 90 days, you can request a jury trial if made in writing and filed 15 days before the scheduled trial date. The Circuit Court decides most serious charges. If your charge is in Circuit Court, the judge will ask if you want a jury trial at your arraignment. All other cases are heard in District Court, where there are only bench trials.
Many sentences are imposed according to guidelines based on criminal history and nature and severity of the crime. A pre-sentencing report sets forth the defendant’s social and employment history, victim statements and those in support of leniency before imposing a sentence.
Retaining an Attorney is Vital
No two states have identical procedures, and your freedom and future are at stake in any criminal matter. Consult with an attorney familiar with Maryland criminal law at your earliest opportunity.