In Maine, both Cumberland County and Penobscot County have the criminal court organized as a Unified Criminal Docket. For these counties, the District and Superior courts were made into a single court. Are you aware of how this change impacts your rights when dealing with court proceedings? Let’s examine what the unified criminal docket means to you and your case.
Purpose of the Unified Criminal Docket
According to legislative intent, the purpose of the Unified Criminal Docket is to move all criminal cases more efficiently and more uniformly through the legal process. Instead of having the District/Superior Court separation, in which some criminal cases are resolved at the District Court and others resolved at the Superior Court, all criminal cases move through the same court at the same location. That is what makes this docket “unified.” It basically removes duplicative paperwork and clerical processing which was needed to transfer cases between the District and Superior Court.
The good news for you is since the Unified Criminal Docket has been in place, criminal cases have moved through the system at a quicker pace. This prompt resolution of cases supports the goals of efficiency and judicial economy. It is also a less expensive cost to the State. Given the success of the District and Superior court unification, it is likely that Maine will be expanding the Unified Criminal Docket to other counties.
Location of the Unified Criminal Docket
Currently, the Unified Criminal Docket is only at the Cumberland County Courthouse in Portland and the Penobscot County Courthouse in Bangor. Other high-volume county Courts might be next to implement the Unified Criminal Docket.
Unified Criminal Docket Court Dates
If you are charged with a Felony in Maine, your first court date is an Initial Appearance. Under the Fifth Amendment to the United States Constitution, you have the right to be indicted by a grand jury of a felony crime. The State has up to six (6) months, or three grand jury cycles, to indict you with a felony. You first need to be Indicted by a grand jury of a felony before you can be Arraigned. If the State fails to indict, then they cannot proceed against you with a felony.
If you are charged with a misdemeanor, your first appearance at Court is an Arraignment, where the details of the charge are read to you, and you have the opportunity to answer to the charge. Depending on the town you live in Cumberland or Penobscot Counties, your Arraignment might be scheduled to take place at a local District Court, but after Arraignment all remaining court dates would be held at the Unified Criminal Docket, which is usually at the County Court Complex.
At Arraignment, the Court must go over your rights as a criminal defendant. In many instances, this means viewing a short video that gives an overview of these rights. Also, the police reports and other discovery from the State can be made available. If there are any issues pertaining to your bail, it is possible to address these concerns at Arraignment.
The Dispositional Conference is the first of the court dates that are scheduled in advance at the Unified Criminal Docket. The Dispositional Conference take the place of what is called the “Docket Call” at the Superior Court. The purpose of the Dispositional Conference is for the Defense Counsel and District Attorney to speak to one another to see if they can reach a resolution to the case without going to a trial. Theoretically, the District Attorney is supposed to present their “best offer” at the Dispositional Conference. As a Maine criminal defense lawyer, I sometimes find that this is not necessarily the case.
During the attorney negotiation, if no agreement is reached that is acceptable to the defendant, then the Dispositional Conference requires that the attorneys conference with the Judge in chambers. In this conference, the Judge puts pressure on both parties to reach an agreement. If no agreement can be worked out with District Attorney after conference, then the Court will set the matter for a pretrial motion hearing date (if there are any pending pretrial motions) as well as for trial exposure.
If any pretrial motions were filed in the case, which are due within 24 hours of the Dispositional Conference, then the next court date would be the Motion Hearing, which is a pretrial Unified Criminal Docket court date. By far, the most common pretrial motion is a Motion to Suppress.
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 Unified Criminal Docket, a Suppression Motion is due 24 hours after the Dispositional Conference. At the Motion Hearing for the Motion to Suppress, often referred to as a Suppression Hearing, the District Attorney argues that the questionable evidence was obtained properly, and thus should be admissible into evidence at trial. The Criminal Defense lawyer argues that the evidence should not be used against the defendant because it was obtained illegally. After the Suppression hearing, the Court issues a determination whether or not the evidence can be used at trial.
As well as an opportunity to argue issues to be suppressed, the Suppression Hearing offers an opportunity for the criminal defense lawyer to discuss the case 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.
If no pretrial motions are filed, then the case progresses directly to the Trial Exposure dates, which is a 2-week period prescheduled by the Court. Both the Jury Selection and Trial dates are supposed to occur during the trial exposure period.
Most people know that 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. Generally, I find that the best offer from the District Attorney can be reached when the District Attorney is examining the jury pool and looking at preparing for trial.
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. The Judge 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 excused.
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 very 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.