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Criminal Justice System

The Criminal Justice System can, at times, appear confusing and to be working at achieving anything but justice. What follows, hopefully, will help demystify some of the procedures and lessen some of the confusion.

The Fundamentals

There are a few basic principles of our system that must be kept in mind and applied to all cases, regardless of how heinous and emotionally disturbing they may be. The most fundamental principle is the presumption of innocence. That presumption follows the defendant (person charged with a crime) throughout the entire process until the fact finder (judge or jury) determines the individual is, in fact, guilty.

Another key principle is that the presumption of innocence can only be refuted if the State (prosecutor) has convinced the judge or jury of the guilt of the defendant "beyond a reasonable doubt." Defining "reasonable doubt" is one of the great exercises in the law. If you are ever on a jury in a criminal case, the judge will give you a definition of reasonable doubt. It will go something like this, which is taken from the Maryland Pattern Jury Instruction Manual:

A reasonable doubt is a doubt founded upon reason. Proof beyond a reasonable doubt requires such proof as would convince you of the truth of a fact to the extent that you would be willing to act upon such belief without reservation in an important matter in your own business or personal affairs. However, if you are not satisfied of the defendant's guilt to that extent, then reasonable doubt exists and the defendant must be found not guilty.

The Process

We're getting ahead of ourselves. Before a determination of guilt or innocence can be reached, an arrest must be made and a person charged with a crime. Once an arrest is made, the person charged (defendant) is taken to a District Court Commissioner, who sets bail or allows the defendant to go free until the trial date. The defendant's bail is reviewed by a District Court Judge if he/she is still in jail after 24 hours. The Judge can reduce or increase the bail.

The purpose of bail is to assure the accused appears for trial. Since the defendant is presumed innocent, there is a further presumption he/she is entitled to be released pending trial, unless the Commissioner and/or Judge believes he/she is a flight risk or poses a danger to society.

If the charge is of a less serious nature (misdemeanor) the case will be tried in the District Court. The District Court also has authority to hear (jurisdiction) certain more serious crimes (felony) also. If the punishment for the crime is greater than 90 days, the person charged can have the case decided by a jury. If the defendant chooses a jury trial, the case is transferred to the Circuit Court.

The Circuit Court is where the more serious trials are held, as well as, all requests for jury trials, and appeals from District Court. Here is another right a defendant has. If a defendant decides to be tried in District Court and doesn't like the decision and/or the punishment of the judge, the defendant can appeal that decision and is given a new trial (de novo) in the Circuit Court. The whole process starts all over again as if nothing ever happened in the District Court. Only the defendant has this right; the State (prosecution) can not appeal.

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After trial in the Circuit Court, the defendant has additional rights if convicted. He may appeal to the Court of Special Appeals. The District and Circuit Courts are "trial" courts. In Maryland, we have two levels of "appellate" courts. A trial court hears testimony from witnesses, has evidence introduced and determines guilt or innocence. Cases in "appellate" courts are heard "on the record" and on the arguments of the attorneys. The appellate court decides if all the rights of the defendant were properly afforded him/her. If so, the judgement of the lower court is affirmed. If not, the court orders the case back to the Circuit Court with instructions.

Depending on the error found by the appellate court, it may be impossible to retry the case. For example, if the case is a drug case and the court rules that the evidence (drugs) was obtained in a fashion that violated the defendant's rights, that evidence cannot be used in the new trial. In such a case, the State would have to dismiss the case since we could not use the seized drug evidence.

Hopefully you found this very brief overview of the criminal justice system helpful. If you have a specific question or need additional clarification, please email us at sao@howardcountymd.gov.