Maine Criminal Process in the Unified Criminal Docket

If you have been arrested or charged with a crime, you must understand how criminal charges are processed through Maine’s Court system. In Maine, there are currently two different criminal systems in the Courts, depending on which county you are being prosecuted. Over time, all of Maine’s Courts will use the same process, known as the Unified Criminal Docket.

Unified Criminal Docket

The Unified Criminal Docket (“UCD”) does just that – It merges the Superior Court’s criminal dockets and the District Court, historically two separate courts for purposes of criminal law, into one Court. Both District Court Judges and Superior Court Justices sit on a Unified Criminal Docket and hear every criminal case type. Before the unified criminal docket, the Superior Court heard certain crimes, while the District Court heard other crimes.

The Unified Criminal Docket is intended to streamline the criminal process and move criminal cases through the system more efficiently. The idea is that when cases move quickly, the unified criminal docket better protects a Defendant’s right to a speedy trial while helping the Court serve more individuals and save on costs. Maine is currently expanding the Unified Criminal Docket to include all of its counties. Some rural counties are still using the old criminal docket system.

Criminal Complaint

A criminal complaint is the formal method by which the State may bring charges against a person. Typically the State will bring misdemeanor charges by simply filing the complaint (or the officer will file the citation, which serves as a court-authorized complaint). However, to bring a complaint about felony charges, the State must first obtain an indictment from a grand jury.

A grand jury is a group of fellow citizens called into the Court at random, just like a regular criminal jury. Still, their purpose is to decide whether there is cause to believe the accused has committed a crime such that the State may bring a criminal complaint against the person. This checks on the State’s ability to charge someone with a crime when a higher-level crime is at issue.

If the grand jury finds that the charges should be brought, the State will then file a criminal complaint. Grand jury proceedings are private. Typically, Defendants cannot get any record of what happens in the grand jury proceedings under the unified criminal docket.

Initial Appearance

A person charged with a Felony (i.e., a Class A, B, or C Crime) will begin the criminal process by appearing at an “Initial Appearance.” An initial appearance occurs before an indictment by a grand jury. Because the grand jury indictment process is constitutionally mandated, as is the right to a speedy trial, the State must indict you within Six (6) months or three grand jury cycles to proceed against you on a felony. Once you have been indicted, you will then be prosecuted. At the initial appearance, you will be informed of the charges. Still, you will not be permitted to plead guilty until either you have been indicted and prosecuted or you have voluntarily waived the grand jury indictment.

Arraignment

If you are charged with a misdemeanor (i.e., a Class D or E-Crime in Maine), the first time you appear before the Court will be for an Arraignment, during which the Court will recite for you the details of the charge against you. You will also be asked to watch a video that will explain all of your rights to you. You will be able to ask the prosecutor to view the police reports and other discovery against you at the Arraignment. If you are in custody, you may make a bail argument to try to get out while your charges are pending.

There is usually an “attorney of the day” available to speak with you on arraignment day. You should take the opportunity to talk to the attorney of the day. The attorney of the day is an attorney from the local area who has been asked by the Court to come and advise people on arraignment day.

The attorney is free of charge to you and paid for by the Court. The attorney will advise you on how you should proceed with the arraignment based on a quick review of your file. You should be aware that an attorney of the day is there to serve many people and will not be able to devote a significant amount of time to your matter. If you are unclear about the advice given to you, you should probably plead not guilty so that you can get a lawyer of your own.

At an Arraignment, the Court will ask you for your plea to the charges. You may plead guilty or nolo contender (no contest) to the Arraignment charges, in which case the Court will sentence you, or you may plead not guilty. If you plead not guilty, the case will continue to the criminal process’s discovery, motion, and trial stages.

It is common for prosecutors to make offers to people for lesser charges or specific sentences to get people to plead out at the Arraignment stage. They will frequently tell you that this is a take it or leave it offer and that you will not get the same offer again. Although it is sometimes a reasonable offer, it is almost always advisable to decline the offer and plead not guilty at an arraignment. This will provide you with an opportunity to either research the charges against you more closely or retain a lawyer to assist you. An attorney will almost always be able to get you at least the same deal offered to you at the Arraignment, if not a better deal.

Court-Appointed Attorneys

Suppose you cannot afford an attorney by pleading not guilty at arraignment. In that case, you will be able to fill out an Indigency Affidavit (Poverty Declaration) and request that the Court grant you counsel. For all crimes carrying jail time as a possible sentence, you are constitutionally entitled to a court-appointed attorney if you cannot afford one.

The Court will have you speak with a financial screener who will determine whether you are eligible for a court-appointed attorney or not. Court-appointed attorneys in Maine are local attorneys who have agreed to accept appointed cases from the Court. Most of these attorneys are the same attorneys who work on cases for people who can afford to pay for lawyers.

Many do it as a service to the community or the Court. You should, therefore, not be concerned about a court-appointed attorney representing you. If the Court determines that you make too much money to get a court-appointed attorney, you will need to either represent yourself (almost never advisable) or retain an attorney.

If you have an attorney, your attorney will enter an appearance with the Court and request the District Attorney for the evidence in your case. Your attorney will also review the evidence and may file Motions to Suppress, Motions for Discovery, and Motions in Limine, and other dispositive or evidentiary motions with the Court. Your attorney will also conduct all of the negotiations with the prosecution and speak to the Judge about your case. Depending on whether the representation is a complete representation or a limited representation, your attorney may also argue your case at trial before either a jury or a judge.

A Note on Plea Deals

In part, Maine’s criminal process is designed to facilitate plea deals between the State and the Defendant. The general theory is that if you force the State and defense to negotiate the cases before actually putting the dispute before the Court or a jury to be decided, deals will get worked out. This reduces the Court’s load and helps the Court weed out many of the cases that really may not be good trial cases.

Dispositional Conference

If you plead not guilty at the arraignment, the next hearing in your criminal matter will be a dispositional conference. You will typically be given a dispositional conference date shortly after the arraignment. The dispositional conference is a meeting of the prosecutor, defense attorney, and judge. Each of the parties is required to show up ready to discuss their best offer in the case.

As part of showing up prepared to discuss the case and hopefully come to some resolution, you will also be required to attend the dispositional conference, even though you may not end up speaking at all. Typically, many Defendants and their families will be waiting in the halls or the courtroom’s back while the defense attorneys and prosecutors go back to the judge’s chambers to speak to the judge about the case.

The judge sitting in the dispositional conference is not the judge who will be hearing the actual trial of your case. Instead, another judge is made available so that the prosecutor and the defense attorney can argue their theories of the case to the judge to get an idea of how the judge sees the case. The judge may also make suggestions as to how the case can be fairly resolved. If no agreement is reached at the dispositional conference, the Court will set the matter for trial.

Motion Hearings

Attorneys are also expected to file any motions with the Court either at the dispositional conference or shortly thereafter. If there are motions, the Court will set a motion hearing where the two sides will be able to argue their cases on the admissibility of particular evidence, ask for missing discovery, etc. Typical motions that you will encounter in a criminal case are motions to suppress, which attack certain evidence that is argued as illegally obtained, or motions in limine that challenge evidentiary items before trial.

Trial Stage

Once the motion hearings are complete, the Court will set the matter for either a bench trial (trial by judge) or a jury trial (trial by 12 fellow citizens). As a Defendant, you have the absolute right to decide whether to have a bench trial or a jury trial. Certain cases are more conducive to bench trials, and certain cases are best dealt with by a jury.

You should discuss this decision with your attorney very carefully. If you elect a bench trial, the judge will set a date for the trial, and each side will appear and present their case, and then the judge will decide whether there is proof beyond a reasonable doubt that you committed the crime as charged.

Jury Selection

If the matter is set for a jury trial, the next stage of the Maine criminal process is jury selection, where a jury of local citizens is picked. The Court will call in jurors from the surrounding communities, and anywhere from 50 to 200 will arrive for selections by multiple cases. Some jurors may end up serving on various cases. This larger group is known as the jury pool. Once the jury pool is assembled, the judge will address them and explain the process to them. They will then be asked questions that the judge and attorneys work out in the case.

Each side is then given peremptory strikes of jurors and can also challenge potential jurors for cause. A peremptory strike is essentially a veto of a particular juror without having to explain why. Attorneys are limited in the number of strikes they may use.

A challenge for cause is an argument made to the judge as to why a particular juror should be excluded from the jury panel for some legitimate reason that makes it unlikely they would be able to be impartial. The goal in picking a jury is to select members who will be fair decision-makers in the case. Once the attorneys have questioned the jurors and made their strikes and challenges for cause, the Court will then pick the jury from the remaining jury pool.

Trailing Docket

Once a jury is picked, the trial will be ready to proceed. In the Unified Criminal Docket, the Court uses a trailing docket, in which cases are put in standby mode until it is their turn to be tried. Once a case is up for a trial, the jury will be impaneled, and the trial will begin.

Trial

At trial, the prosecution has the burden to prove every criminal charge element by proof beyond a reasonable doubt. This is proof that is almost certainly true. Anything less than this requires that the jury acquitted the Defendant. Defense attorneys spend much of their time with the jury attempting to remind them that they must look past all of the prejudices against the Defendant and force the State to prove its case beyond a reasonable doubt.

The prosecution will present its case in chief first. This will consist of putting on witnesses and offering physical evidence to the Court through exhibits. The defense attorney may cross-examine some witnesses where they think appropriate and may challenge certain evidence as inadmissible under the Maine Rules of Evidence which control at any criminal trial.

Once the prosecution has rested its case, the Defense will put on its case. The Defense may decide not to present a case if it believes that the State has failed to meet its burden of proving all of the elements beyond a reasonable doubt. In this case, the Defense would rest, and each side would present closing arguments, after which the Jury would decide the case. If the Defense does put on a case because it believes it is necessary to create a reasonable doubt, the Defense will then put on its own witnesses and enter its own exhibits.

You will sometimes see a defense attorney move for judgment as a matter of law after the State rests but before the defense case begins. This is a motion for the judge to rule on whether the State has succeeded in proving enough evidence that a reasonable jury could find the Defendant guilty beyond a reasonable doubt. If the Judge believes that there is enough evidence for the jury, the Court will deny the motion. If the Court grants the motion, the case is over.

During the defense case, the Defendant has the right to decide whether to testify in the case. You should carefully discuss this with your attorney before doing so. You have a constitutional right against self-incrimination. By taking the stand, you are placing yourself before a trained and experienced attorney in the form of the prosecutor who will attempt to get you to contradict yourself. Because people often get nervous on the stand, many defense attorneys strongly discourage their clients from testifying in a criminal trial. Each case is different, however, and sometimes defendant testimony is important.

After the defense presents its case, the prosecution will have an opportunity to offer rebuttal evidence that challenges the Defense’s evidence. After the rebuttal stage, each side will then present closing arguments to the jury, explaining their legal positions and asking the jury to rule in their favor. The judge will then read the jury some jury instructions about the law they must consider in the case. When this is complete, the jury will leave the courtroom to deliberate on the matter.

The jury must agree unanimously in a criminal case that the Defendant is guilty beyond a reasonable doubt or not guilty. If the jury cannot agree, it will be considered a hung jury. If the jury is hung, the prosecution may bring the charges a second time and argue the case before another jury; however, if the jury finds you not guilty of the charge, the constitution will protect you against future charges for the same crime under the double jeopardy clause.

If the jury rules against you, your attorney may move the court for a judgment notwithstanding the jury’s verdict by arguing that there were no facts sufficient for the jury to find beyond a reasonable doubt as it did. If the judge grants this motion, which is extremely rare, you will be found not guilty. If the judge denies the motion, the jury’s verdict will stand, and you will be given a date for sentencing.

Sentencing

Sentencing is a separate hearing in most cases. Each side will present evidence as to what the sentence for the crime should be by considering the offense’s particular nature and seriousness. In Maine, the Court utilizes a process known as the Hewey Analysis to determine a sentence. 17-A M.R.S. 1252-C; State v. Hewey, 622 A.2d 1151 (Me. 1993).

The first step of the analysis requires that the Court look at the crime objectively to determine the type of crime it was and how serious the misconduct as compared to the possible ways that the particular crime might have been committed.

The second step is for the Court to evaluate the mitigating and aggravating factors of the offense to determine the maximum imprisonment period. These are the facts that either merit a reduction or an increase in the basic sentence determined by the Court in step one. In this step, the Court will consider all relevant factors.

The third and final step is for the Court to determine what portion, if any, of the sentence will be suspended. A suspended sentence is a period of the sentence that you will not need to actually serve in jail. You will still be subject to conditions of release which, if violated, will result in your arrest and return to jail. If suspension is ordered, the Court will also order you to a period of probation. The third step is a careful balancing of an acknowledgment of the seriousness of the crime together with the Maine legislature’s goal of rehabilitating criminal defendants so that they can have a crime-free life after conviction.

If you disagree with the sentence, you may file an Application to allow appeal of the sentence to the Maine Supreme Court. Justices of the Supreme Court will then review the application and decide whether to deny the request or grant the request. If the request is granted, you will be permitted to take an appeal from your sentence.

Appeal

You may appeal your conviction (which is the finding that you committed a crime) to the Maine Supreme Judicial Court sitting as the Law Court. You must file your appeal within 21 days of the entry of the judgment into the docket. In an appeal, you may challenge the sufficiency of the evidence against you, or that the judge made errors in the law when instructing the jury or deciding the case, or that some procedural irregularity merits the reversal of your conviction, among others. It is often the case that constitutional grounds are raised as to why your conviction should be overturned.