If you are accused of a criminal charge within Maine, you will fight your charges in one of the many District Courts or Superior Courts. I am a licensed Maine Criminal Defense Lawyer who can help defend you throughout Maine against Criminal Charges such as Operating Under the Influence (OUI), Habitual Offender (HO), Domestic Violence (DV) and other criminal charges.
In most of my articles about different types of criminal cases, I include a section on Maine criminal court procedure with a view from 30,000 feet, touching only on the major court dates. However, there is much more to court procedure than your major court dates.
In Maine, District Courts have limited criminal jurisdiction mostly focused upon prosecuting misdemeanor charges such as Operating Under the Influence (OUI) and Operating After Suspension (OAS). The Superior Courts are Maine’s general criminal jurisdiction courts, but specifically all Felony criminal cases start in the Superior Court. A point of note is that jury trials are only held at Maine’s Superior Courts.
If you are facing criminal charges in Maine, it is a good idea to understand how the District and Superior Courts work. Here is a closer look at Maine court procedures from the many local District Courts and County Superior Courts in Maine to help you
The Most Widely Used Court Procedure in Maine
Even though there has been much fanfare about the Unified Criminal Docket, still the most widely used criminal court procedure in Maine is the combination of Maine District and Maine County Superior Courts.
District Court Locations
Within Maine, there are one or more District Courts within each county. The jurisdiction of district courts is limited to prosecuting misdemeanor charges. Cases that are disposed of in District Court are heard through a Bench Trial, or a trial infront of a Judge. Criminal cases in the District Court are not eligible for jury trials. A request needs to be made to have a jury trial for a misdemeanor charge and then it will be moved to Superior Court.
In Maine, there are District Courts located in the following towns: Augusta, Bangor, Belfast, Biddeford, Bridgton, Calais, Caribou, Dover-Foxcroft, Ellsworth, Farmington, Fort Kent, Houlton, Lewiston, Lincoln, Machias, Madawaska, Millinocket, Newport, Portland, Presque Isle, Rockland, Rumford, Skowhegan, South Paris, Springvale, Waterville, West Bath, Wiscasset, and York.
Superior Court Locations
In Maine, there are Superior Courts located in the following Counties: York (Alfred), Androscoggin (Auburn), Kennebec (Augusta), Penobscot (Bangor), Sagadahoc (Bath), Waldo (Belfast), Aroostook (Caribou and Houlton), Piscataquis (Dover-Foxcroft), Hancock (Ellsworth), Franklin (Farmington), Washington (Machias), Cumberland (Portland), Knox (Rockland), Somerset (Skowhegan), Oxford (South Paris), and Lincoln (Wiscasset).
About Maine District Courts
Maine District Courts are busy places that handle a broad range of cases, including: all small claims matters, all Landlord/Tenant cases such as evictions and FEDs, all family matters, such as divorce and parental rights and responsibilities, protection from abuse/harassment cases, all Juvenile criminal matters, as well as misdemeanor criminal matters. In criminal cases, District Courts handle misdemeanors. Felony charges start in the Superior Court.
In a typical misdemeanor charge, after the person’s arrest their case would be reviewed by a Bail Commissioner, who sets bail. Bail can be a cash component (secured) or a release on personal recognizance (PR). On your Summons or bail bond should be an Arraignment date, which is your first court appearance. If the defendant retains a criminal defense lawyer before Arraignment, and the attorney appears on that person’s behalf, then that person would not be required to appear for their Arraignment. Or, if the defendant retains a criminal defense lawyer sufficiently ahead of the Arraignment date, the attorney can submit a plea of Not Guilty in writing on that person’s behalf prior to Arraignment.
Jury Trial Request
Criminal cases that start out at the District Court stay at the District Court unless the matter is transferred to the Superior Court, where a jury trial is available. If the defendant wishes to pursue a jury trial, and to preserve the defendant’s right to a jury trial, the Maine criminal defense lawyer would submit a Jury Trial Request. The Jury Trial Request is due 21 days after Arraignment. Please let me know if you would like me to work with you to preserve your right to a jury trial. I do this for all my clients whenever possible.
At the District Court, pretrial motions are required to be filed 21 days after an Arraignment date and are heard immediately preceding a Bench Trial, which is a trial in front of a Judge. Some common pretrial motions at the District Court include:
Bail Modification Hearing
A Motion to Modify Bail requests that specific bail conditions be changed or modified so that the defendant can better meet them. A bail modification request can take place at any time the defendant requires a change in bail conditions. Usually, bail modification motions are heard early in the case. Often, the Court sets a specific date for Bail Motion Hearings.
Motion to Dismiss
If I feel that the State’s complaint is deficient or the State cannot meet its burden as a matter of law, then I can file a Motion to Dismiss, asking the court to drop the case against my client.
Motion to Suppress
If the police reports show that some evidence against my client might have been seized in violation of their constitutional rights, then I would submit a Motion to Suppress, asking the court to not allow the questionable evidence to be entered at the Bench Trial.
In either case, the motion hearing is held before a Judge, who hears arguments from both attorneys and then issues a determination. After the Motion Hearing has been completed, the Bench Trial may move forward.
If a Jury Trial request was not submitted in a timely manner, or if counsel believes that the case would be best served by staying at the District Court, then the trial would be a Bench Trial in front of a Judge. In a Bench Trial, it is a full trial held in front of a Judge, who is the only fact finder to decide whether the defendant is guilty or not guilty.
Depending on the type of evidence in the case, it might be useful to have a trial in front of a Judge. For instance, if the nature of the evidence is highly technical so that it might be difficult for a typical juror to understand or if the subject matter might “bore” the jury, then a Bench Trial might be appropriate.
If charged with committing a felony crime, your case would start out being heard at the Superior Court. The procedure from the Superior Court looks very similar to that of the Unified Criminal Docket, except with different names for similar court dates. If charged with a felony, you are required to attend all court dates in person.
In many instances, if charged with a felony crime the State can keep you in custody at the county jail if you cannot make bail until the next time the Court is in session, usually within 48 hours. Your Initial Appearance at Court is the first time you are in front of a Justice on the felony change. Since an Initial Appearance is not an Arraignment, no pleas are entered. At your Initial Appearance, the Justice can set your bail along with any bail requirements or conditions. Also at your Initial Appearance, a Status Conference date is set.
If charged with a felony, you first need to be indicted by a grand jury before you can be Arraigned. This is a Fifth Amendment right. Generally, the State has six (6) months, or three (3) grand jury cycles to indict you. If you are indicted by your Status Conference date, it is possible that your Status Conference date would become your Arraignment date. However, if you are not indicted by your Status Conference date, then you would attend the Status Conference as a check-in date with the Court to assure that you are meeting all of your bail conditions and otherwise staying out of criminal trouble.
Arraignment at Superior Court
After you have been indicted by the grand jury, an Arraignment date would be set. At Arraignment, the Court must go over your rights as a criminal defendant. Also, the police reports and other discovery from the State can be made available. Your Arraignment is where the details of the charge are read to you and you have an opportunity to answer to the charge in the form of Not Guilty.
The Docket Call at the Superior Court is very similar to the Dispositional Conference at the Unified Criminal Docket, in that the purpose of the Docket Call is for the District Attorney and Criminal Defense Lawyer to negotiate to reach a potential resolution to the case without going to trial. However, if no acceptable resolution is reached at Docket Call, then the case would progress to further court dates, including the Motion Hearings and Jury Trial. Also in contrast, at Docket Call there is no conference in chambers with the Judge, as in a Dispositional Conference.
If you requested a jury trial from the District Court, then your first court date at the Superior Court would be the Docket Call.
Here are a few types of pretrial motions that can be heard at the Superior Court.
Motion to Modify Bail
A Motion to Modify Bail requests that specific bail conditions be changed or modified so that the defendant can better meet them. A bail modification request can take place at any time the defendant requires a change in bail conditions. Usually, bail modification motions in the Superior Court are heard early in the case, such as around the Status Conference or Arraignment.
Motion to Suppress
A Motion to Suppress requests that any evidence obtained in violation of the defendant’s constitutional rights be suppressed from (kept out of) evidence at trial. At the pretrial hearing known as a Suppression Hearing, the District Attorney argues that the questionable evidence was obtained properly, and the Criminal Defense lawyer argues that the evidence should be suppressed as being obtained illegally. After the Suppression hearing, the Court issues a determination whether or not the evidence can be used at trial. The Suppression Hearing also offers an opportunity for the criminal defense lawyer to negotiate with the District Attorney to attempt to reach a favorable resolution for the defendant.
Motion to Dismiss
If I feel that the State’s complaint is deficient or the State cannot meet its burden as a matter of law, then I can file a Motion to Dismiss, asking the court to drop the case against my client. Here is an example of a case that I got dismissed from a Motion to Dismiss.
Jury Selection and Jury Trial.
At the Superior Court, Jury Selection and Trial is the process of selecting jurors and having your day at court.
A jury is made up of 12 jurors, who are selected randomly from the community. The role of the jury is a fundamental American Constitutional right- to be judged guilty or not guilty by a jury of your peers. At Jury Selection, the Judge will discuss jury service to the group of potential jurors, and then the selection process of questioning the potential jurors begins. The Justice may ask questions, and the attorneys may submit questions to the Judge to ask the potential jurors, either as a group or individually. The purpose of questioning potential jurors is to determine if there are reasons why any juror cannot be fair about the case , or if any individual juror has a personal interest in the case. If for one reason or another the attorneys do not see particular individuals as the right fit, then they would be challenged.
At the end of the Jury Selection, 12 jurors and a few alternate jurors are selected, or “impaneled.” These jurors and alternates are given the Juror’s Solemn Oath, and the trial can begin.
A trial is a defendant’s “day in court.” A trial is a formal court proceeding, including opening statements from both attorneys, each side presenting its case, including presenting witness testimony and physical evidence, and evidentiary objections are made and ruled on. After each side presents its case, closing arguments are presented to the jury. Before the jury is handed the case for a determination, the Judge will read what are called Jury Instructions, which outline any legal principles the jurors need to know to decide the case. Finally, the jury deliberates and comes to a final determination whether you are guilty or not guilty.