On March 12, 2020 Chief Judge Mary Ellen Barbera ordered that all Maryland court houses be closed to the public until at least June 5, 2020. While the Courts are still hearing a very limited number of emergency matters, the vast bulk of cases involving members of the public have been postponed. This includes cases that have historically been considered time sensitive. Final Protective order hearings are not being held during the closing, however, the District Court Commissioner’s Office is still open for the filing of interim Peace and Protective Order petitions. The hearing on the Final Protective or Peace Order is being deferred until after the Courts open to the public.
In the time before the Courts closed, an individual in need of a Peace or Protective Order would go to a Commissioner and describe the “Reasonable Grounds” to believe that an act of abuse had taken place. The Commissioner would then issue an Interim Order and the matter would be set to be heard by a Judge within a couple of days for a Temporary Order.
The standard before the Judge for a Temporary Order is identical to the standard for an Interim Order, that “Reasonable Grounds” exist to believe that the abuse occurred. Neither of these hearings require that the other side, the person from whom protection is sought, be present. The Commissioner and Judge at both the Interim and Temporary Order stages can make a finding based only on evidence presented by the person seeking the Protective Order, and the standard of review is only Reasonable Grounds (the lowest legal standard that exists, even lower than Probable Cause).
At the Final Order hearing, the other side is given a chance to present evidence and the standard of review goes up from Reasonable Grounds to Preponderance of the Evidence. Preponderance of the Evidence can be thought of as the winner needs to prove their case by 51% to 49%. This is a lower standard than Clear and Convincing evidence or Beyond a Reasonable Doubt, however, it is a much higher standard than the Reasonable Grounds required for an Interim or Temporary Order. However, during the Court closures due to COVID-19, the only hearings that are being held or the Interim (and very rarely) Temporary hearings. The Final Hearing in all of these new cases will be scheduled after the Courts reopen, June 4, 2020 or later.
This means that an angry partner can have their boyfriend, girlfriend, husband, or wife be forced to leave their residence and have no contact with their children during the entirety of the time that the Courts are closed. A Respondent in a Protective Order case can be forced out of their home and out of all contact with their children merely because their partner was willing to go the District Court Commissioner and claim an act of abuse. The Respondent will be forced to find a place to live for the weeks or months until the Courts reopen and they are given an opportunity to be heard. The Respondent will not have an opportunity to contest this ex parte finding for the weeks or months until the Courts reopen.