Some civil and criminal trials in Maryland will be suspended until at least January amid a recent surge in coronavirus cases, the state Court of Appeals announced this week.
Chief Judge Mary Ellen Barbera issued the order Thursday that will allow cases with a jury already in session to continue and clerk offices in both district and circuit courts to remain open through Dec. 31, with those courts authorized and encouraged to conduct any legal proceedings by phone or video “to the greatest extent possible.”
Thursday marked the state’s ninth straight day the state health department reported 1,000 or more confirmed coronavirus cases.
“The health and safety of the public, judges, and Judiciary staff remains a top priority, and we will continue to monitor the COVID-19 health emergency and adjust Judiciary operations as necessary,” Barbera said in a statement. “We will keep the public apprised of any changes in operations and ensure that as many of the core functions of the Judiciary will remain available to the extent the emergency conditions allow.”
Courts in Maryland have been operating in Phase 5 since Oct. 5 with court operations fully functional and health protocols in place.
Now courts will move back to Phase 3, which allows some civil and criminal hearings to continue.
The circuit court can continue to hear some civil and criminal cases such as juvenile delinquency, expungements and settlement hearings. District court can hear minor traffic matters, temporary domestic violence protective orders and certain landlord and tenant cases.
Eviction cases based on non-payment are postponed in district court until at least January.
Although an eviction moratorium instituted in September by the Centers for Diseases Control and Prevention remains in effect until the end of the year, eviction proceedings in Prince George’s County remain a concern.
Gov. Larry Hogan’s state-of-emergency orders declared once a month since March 5 also applies to eviction cases, said Kayla Williams, an attorney with Community Legal Services of Prince George’s County Inc.
The state has three other types of evictions cases: tenant holding over, breach of lease and wrongful detainer.
Williams said Friday the state-of-emergency order, with the latest one declared Oct. 29, also applies to breach of lease cases that deal with a landlord filing documents in court when a tenant allegedly doesn’t adhere to rules and regulations on a lease.
She said a major loophole the CDC and state orders don’t address are tenant holding over cases. That occurs when a landlord files paperwork court in court because a tenant’s lease expired. A landlord doesn’t have to provide an explanation as long as the tenant receives a notice first.
“That’s a loophole a lot of landlords are using,” Williams said. “It can very confusing and very stressful when you see that paperwork and really don’t know what it means.”
Williams said the office has received nearly 600 phone calls for landlord-tenant issues since May 4.
Since district court resumed hearing cases regarding rent disputes in September, Williams said the nonprofit organization represented about 115 clients with the majority dealing with cases filed after the state of emergency was initially declared in March.
“Prince George’s County is an expensive place to live in,” Williams said. “People have accrued debt, the average rent per tenant is $1,200 to $1,400. That adds up after four, five, six months. We are in very deep and there is no end in sight. It is very sobering.”