Yes, appeal options matter in state District Court
By John Grimm
One of the challenges of a criminal practice in the Maryland District Court is deciding how best to position your client for appeal. A typical day in the District Court can be a busy, if not hectic, affair, requiring lawyers to wrangle witnesses, work out plea deals, examine discovery, and, not uncommonly, meet and interview their clients for the first time. Although it can be hard to devote attention to preserving appellate issues, or even thinking about appellate strategy, the District Court’s unique jurisdictional status presents both appellate risks and benefits, and, during your trial preparation, it’s worth giving a little thought to what you’d want your criminal appeal to look like.
Two rules work in tandem to give District Court practitioners an important strategic choice in criminal cases. First, criminal appeals from the District Court generally take the form of a de novo trial in the circuit court. Md. Rule 7-102(a). Second, any defendant facing incarceration for more than 90 days on a given count can demand a jury trial in the circuit court. Md. Code Ann., Cts. & Jud. P. § 4-302(e)(2). While this will apply to a great many District Court cases, it will not include a number of common misdemeanor charges, including possession of less than 10 grams of marijuana, theft of under $100, or certain traffic offenses.
The combined effect of these two rules is that defendants charged in the District Court with at least one count that can be punished by more than 90 days’ incarceration have the option of either two trials or a trial plus a record appeal to an appellate court. Each option should be weighed carefully.
If you choose to try your case in the District Court, you essentially have the right to two trials, because your appeal will be a de novo trial in circuit court. You get an opportunity to convince two fact-finders, including a jury once you get to circuit court. And in the de novo trial, you get the benefit of witnesses’ prior testimony in the District Court — which, as any civil litigator will tell you, can be a huge asset. The benefits of the two-trial approach, however, come with a cost: There is no right to a subsequent appeal in the Court of Special Appeals. Md. Code Ann., Cts. & Jud. P. § 12-302(a). This means that any errors in the second trial will go unreviewed unless you can convince the Court of Appeals to take your case. Md. Code Ann., Cts. & Jud. P. § 12-305.
On the other hand, if you demand a jury trial, the District Court is divested of jurisdiction and your case will be tried in the first instance in circuit court. Md. Code Ann., Cts. & Jud. P. § 4-302(e)(1). (Once in circuit court, a defendant can still elect a bench trial.) Because the circuit court is not exercising its appellate jurisdiction, appeals go to the Court of Special Appeals. Although you lose the benefit of two trials, you retain the ability to preserve issues for review by an appellate court.
There is a third option, although it is uncommon. If both parties agree, the circuit court can hear a criminal District Court appeal on the record instead of as a de novo trial. Md. Rule 7-102(b)(3). There is still no right to a subsequent appeal to the Court of Special Appeals, but this option will allow the circuit court to review any errors in the District Court — and any legal arguments —without the risk of introducing new errors in a new trial. Many practitioners are not familiar with this variety of District Court appeal, however, and the State may have little incentive to consent to a record appeal instead of re-trying a case it already won.
There is no absolute rule for deciding what type of appeal to choose, and often you don’t have a choice. But if you do get to decide, there are certain factors worth considering. Cases with a novel legal question, jury instruction that is likely to be disputed, or tricky evidentiary issue, for instance, might be good candidates for trial in the circuit court with appeal to an appellate court. Same thing if you’re hoping to get a reported opinion. On the other hand, in cases that are factually dependent, or don’t raise legal issues, it may be more important to get two chances to convince a fact-finder than to preserve errors.
A post of mine last month gives a good illustration of how this decision can play out in real life — and shows what a difference a few days’ incarceration can make. I wrote about a recent Supreme Court decision that calls into question the constitutionality of Maryland stun gun bans. Often, stun-gun violations are brought in the District Court, but in different jurisdictions they carry different sentences.
In Baltimore City, a stun-gun defendant only faces 60 days in jail and cannot demand a jury trial. For those defendants, the only option on appeal is a de novo trial in circuit court, meaning their cases will evade review by an appeals court unless the Court of Appeals takes them up. On the other hand, defendants in Baltimore and Howard Counties face up to six months of incarceration, so they can demand a jury trial, and, eventually, take their constitutional challenge to the Court of Special Appeals.
In the District Court, it can be hard enough to catch your breath, let alone plan for appeal. But it’s important to know the contours and limitations of District Court appeals. Understanding the interplay of jury demands, de novo appeals, and limits on other courts’ appellate jurisdiction will help practitioners avoid pitfalls and calculate the best strategy for their clients.