Initiation of a Case

A criminal case may be initiated in one of four ways: A warrantless arrest by a police officer; an application for statement of charges submitted to a District Court Commissioner by either a police officer or a private citizen; charging documents filed by the State’s Attorney for the County in which the alleged crime occurred or indictment by a grand jury. Persons charged with criminal offenses by any of the aforementioned procedures are referred to as defendants.

Bail and Arraignment

A defendant who is arrested without a warrant by a police officer or on authority of an arrest warrant issued by a District Court Commissioner is entitled to be brought before a District Court Commissioner for a bail determination following the arrest. The primary purpose of bail is to ensure the defendant will appear at the scheduled court trial. The amount of bail set by the commissioner will depend on the seriousness of the offense/s charged, the defendant’s prior criminal record, the defendant’s ties to the community, public safety and any other factors deemed significant by the commissioner.  The commissioner can release the defendant pending trail or set a bail amount that must be posted before the defendant is released from jail.  If a defendant can’t post the bond set by the commissioner a bail review, which is a review of the bail set by the commissioner, will be held by a judge. During the bail review a judge can increase, lower or keep the same bail that was set by the commissioner.

A defendant who is charged with a crime by way of a criminal summons is served with charging documents by a law enforcement officer.  This document explains the charges that have been filed against the defendant and include a date to appear before a judge for a preliminary inquiry.  At the preliminary hearing appearance the judge will advise the defendant of certain rights and explain the charges filed against the defendant and the maximum penalties if convicted.

A defendant who is charged with a crime by way of a filing of charges directly through the Circuit Court by the State’s Attorney or by an arrest warrant issued after indictment by a grand jury will be taken directly to jail until a hearing can be scheduled before a Circuit Court Judge for a bail hearing.  At the bail hearing the judge can release the defendant pending trial or may set a bail that must be posted prior to the defendant’s release from jail.

Trial in District Court

The District Court has jurisdiction to try all cases in which a defendant is charged with a misdemeanor offense, and in a limited number of cases in which a defendant is charged with a felony offense (including but not limited to felony theft and forgery). The District Court does not have authority to conduct jury trials; consequently, all trials that occur in District Court are judge trials. In a judge trial, the prosecutor presents evidence to include witnesses and physical evidence, if applicable, in order to convince the judge beyond a reasonable doubt that the defendant is guilty of the offense/s charged.

Defendants charged with certain offenses within the jurisdiction of the District Court may elect, upon request, to have their case transferred to the Circuit Court for trial by jury. Cases eligible for transfer to the Circuit Court are those in which the maximum penalty for any single offense charged exceeds ninety (90) days in jail. Defendants are not required to notify either the prosecutor or the court in advance of their desire to be tried by jury and this request can be made the day a trial is scheduled in the District Court. As a result, State’s witnesses that are summoned to appear for the District Court trial may be required to appear at a later date when the case is rescheduled for trial in the Circuit Court.

Trial in Circuit Court

Most trials in the Circuit Court involve juries; however, defendants can waive their rights to a jury trial and elect to have the case heard by the judge, just as in District Court.

Before a jury trial can commence in Circuit Court, the prosecutor and defendant, or his or her attorney, must participate in the selection of the jury. Criminal jury trials in Maryland require the selection of twelve jurors and typically one or two alternate jurors. Once the jury and alternates are selected the trial then commences.

Jury verdicts in Maryland criminal cases must be unanimous. If a trial jury cannot by unanimous vote find a defendant guilty or not guilty, the trial judge will declare a mistrial. Following the declaration of a mistrial, the State is free to retry the case before a different jury on a later date. The State can also elect not to retry the case.


After a defendant has been convicted following either a trial or a guilty plea, the presiding judge is required to impose a sentence. Sentencing proceedings in the District Court generally occur the same day as trial, while sentencing proceedings in the Circuit Court often occur several weeks after trial. Victims are entitled to present impact statements, either verbally or in writing, to the judge for consideration at sentencing (our victim-witness staff can assist any victim or family member with questions and procedures concerning a victim-witness impact statement).

The prosecutor’s role at the sentencing hearing is limited to that of recommending a sentence to the presiding judge and the reasoning behind the recommendation. The defendant is entitled to present mitigating information to the presiding judge and is also entitled to make a sentencing recommendation. The judge is generally free to accept or disregard the recommendations made by the prosecutor of defendant.


Defendants convicted in District Court proceedings may be entitled to a new trial in Circuit Court. A case appealed from District Court to Circuit Court must proceed as new case. Thus, the prosecutor is required to present the case again before a judge or jury, as the defendant is entitled to either a jury or judge trial in the Circuit Court.

Defendants convicted following a trial in the Circuit Court are entitled to an appeal on the record. The “record” consists of a transcription of all testimony by any witnesses heard by the judge or jury, together with all exhibits offered into evidence. If the appeals court finds merit in the arguments made by the defendant the appeals court will grant a new trial. If the appeals court finds that the evidence presented in the case was insufficient as a matter of law to support the conviction, the State can not retry the case due to constitutional principles regarding double jeopardy.

Post-conviction petitions

Defendants who have exhausted their appeal process without success can also file petitions seeking post-conviction relief. For a number of reasons, post-conviction petitions are generally filed on in cases in which a defendant was convicted in Circuit Court. Such petitions usually allege ineffective assistance from defense counsel.

There is no time limit for the filing of a post-conviction petition other than the requirement that the defendant still be serving some type of sentence at the time the petition is filed. In practical terms, this means that a post-conviction petition can be (and often is) filed years after the defendant’s initial conviction and sentencing.

If a defendant files a post-conviction petition, the court will schedule a hearing. The defendant has the burden of establishing any defects alleged at such hearing. If the defect alleged involves inadequate assistance of counsel, the defendant must establish that his or hers counsel’s representation was inadequate and that it likely had an impact on the outcome of the trial. If the court determines that the defendant has met his burden in a post-conviction hearing, the court is required to order a new trial.