Criminal Justice System
The State of Maine prosecutes crimes committed within the State. The State of Maine is represented in court by an Assistant Attorney General or an Assistant District Attorney. Federal crimes are prosecuted by the Federal Government, which is represented in court by Assistant United States Attorneys. Certain crimes committed on Indian reservations may be prosecuted in Tribal Court by Tribal Prosecutors.
The eight District Attorneys Offices, each of which is supervised by an elected District Attorney, handle the majority of the criminal offenses committed in Maine. The Office of the Attorney General prosecutes all homicides and many drug offenses. Assistant Attorneys General also prosecute welfare and Medicaid fraud, securities crime, and official corruption cases.
Criminal trials are heard in the District and Superior Courts. Jury trials are always conducted in the Superior Courts. Appeals may be heard by the Superior Court or the Supreme Judicial Court. For more information about the different courts in Maine, including information for jurors, go to the Courts web site.
Frequently Asked Questions
How do I know if something is against the law?
The Maine Criminal Code is found in Title 17-A of the Maine Revised Statutes. However, many crimes are defined outside the Code. For example, many hunting and fishing offenses are defined in Title 12 of the Maine Revised Statutes, and crimes involving the unlicensed practice of a profession are usually set out in the statutes governing that profession. The Maine Statutes are maintained by many libraries and may be searched online. If you have questions, you should contact a qualified private attorney for legal advice specific to your situation.
I have been subpoenaed to testify in a criminal case. What do I need to know about testifying?
A subpoena is an order of the court. If you have a legitimate reason that would prevent you from testifying (like illness), you should contact the party that subpoenaed you immediately. When you do testify, try to keep the following in mind:
- Always tell the truth.
- Be prepared to tell what happened, but don't try to memorize your testimony.
- Listen carefully to the question and think before answering. If you don't understand the question, ask for it to be repeated or explained.
- If you do not remember details, it is okay to say you do not remember. It is all right to answer in the affirmative when asked whether or not you have talked with anybody about the case prior to court. It is perfectly proper for you to have talked to the prosecutor or the police before you testify.
- Do not discuss the case with anyone outside of the Courtroom until after the case is over.
- Do not guess at the answers. Tell only what you know.
- Speak loudly and clearly.
- Look at the person asking the questions while you are testifying.
- Stop speaking if the Judge interrupts or if an attorney objects to a question.
- Be courteous. Don't argue with an attorney, even if he/she acts discourteously or offensively.
- Dress neatly and appropriately.
- Stay calm.
I am the victim of a crime. Do I have any rights?
Victims deserve to be treated with dignity and respect, to be assisted by criminal justice agencies, and to be informed about the criminal justice system. Law enforcement offices have special responsibilities to victims of domestic violence. Many of a victim's rights are outlined in Maine statutes:
Whenever practicable, the State should make a good faith effort to inform a victim of plea agreement; the right to comment on plea agreements; proposed dismissals or filings; the time and place of trial; the time and place of sentencing; and the right to participate at sentencing.
Victims are to be provided with an opportunity to participate at sentencing, and the court must consider the victims' input.
A victim of a Class A, B, C crime or murder who files a request for notification of release has the right to be notified of a defendant's release or conditional release from institutional confinement.
A judge imposing sentence is required to ask the prosecutor, victim or a law enforcement officer about the need for restitution, and to order the defendant to make restitution if it is appropriate and the defendant has the capacity to pay.
What's the difference between a civil case and a criminal case?
Although victims and witnesses notify law enforcement of crimes, and are usually essential to the successful prosecution of those crimes, it is the State that brings criminal charges against someone. A prosecutor or a Grand Jury must approve those charges. The name of a criminal case brought by the State of Maine will always be "State of Maine v. Defendant." The State brings criminal charges because it has an interest not only in seeing the particular victim made whole, but also rehabilitating the offender, maintaining order in society, protecting the public and deterring future misconduct. A criminal charge brings with it the risk of a jail sentence. The State must prove its case "beyond a reasonable doubt."
In contrast, a civil case can be brought by one or more individuals to resolve a dispute between those individuals.* Common civil cases include divorces, breach of contract cases, property disputes, and landlord-tenant disputes. In many cases, the plaintiff, or person bringing the lawsuit, must prove his case "by a preponderance of the evidence" in order to prevail. This is a lower standard than "beyond a reasonable doubt." The State has a greater burden in criminal cases because of the risk that a convicted person will be deprived of his or her freedom, and because of the collateral consequences associated with criminal convictions.
[*There are many exceptions to this general statement. The State is a necessary party in some civil proceedings such as traffic violations and child protective proceedings. The State can be sued by individuals for wrongs alleged to have been committed by an agent of the state. A state can seek an injunction to stop someone from violating the law, for example, to stop someone from discharging pollutants.]
What is probation? Is it different than parole?
Probation is a defined period of time during which a convicted person must report to and is supervised by a probation officer. The offender may have to comply with special conditions, such as counseling, no contact with a victim, or even staying out of a certain geographic area. Probation often follows a period of time served in jail. This is called a "split sentence." 17-A M.R.S.A. § 1203. The jail sentence is split between that which is served, and that which is "suspended." The remaining jail sentence is, in effect, suspended over the probationer's head during the time he is on probation. Sometimes, the jail sentence is "wholly suspended." 17-A M.R.S.A. § 1203-C. In other words, the offender spends no time in jail up front. However, if a probationer violates any of the probation conditions or commits new criminal conduct, probation can be "revoked." A judge can order the person to return to jail for all or any portion of the suspended sentence. 17-A M.R.S.A. §§1205-1207. A suspended sentence provides incentive for the probationer to comply with conditions of probation and refrain from further criminal conduct.
Probation is not the same as parole, which involves early release from a sentence imposed. Maine no longer imposes sentences where persons are eligible for parole. Jailed offenders, may, however, qualify for "good time" credits, which can reduce the length of time they spend in jail. 17-A M.R.S.A. § 1253.
How does the Judge figure out what sentence to impose?
There are many factors that affect sentencing. In addition to the maximum fines and periods of incarceration set out above, a judge can impose probation, conditions of probation and order a convicted person to make restitution and perform community service. The judge will consider the nature and seriousness of the offense committed, and all relevant aggravating and mitigating circumstances. Such circumstances may include the age of the defendant, any prior criminal and social history of the defendant, the effect on the victim, the age of the victim, the need to protect the public, the defendant's ability to make restitution, the defendant's motive in committing the crime, and the need to deter this defendant and others from committing future offenses. The victim's input is an important factor in reaching an appropriate sentence. Sometimes a statute establishes the "mandatory minimum" sentence that a judge must impose. For example, a person convicted of reckless conduct with a firearm against a person must be sentenced to a minimum of one year in prison. 17-A M.R.S.A. §§, 211, 1252. The statutes governing sentencing are set out in Part III of the Maine Criminal Code, which is found at 17-A M.R.S.A. §§1151-1346.
Does Maine have the death penalty? What is the longest sentence that can be imposed?
No. The longest sentence that can be imposed is life, which can be imposed for murder.
What are felonies and misdemeanors?
Crimes were traditionally classified as felonies (serious crimes punishable by more than one year in prison) and misdemeanors (less serious crimes punishable by one year or less in jail). Maine no longer uses these categories, but classifies crimes as follows:
- Class E: Crimes punishable by up to six months incarceration and a $1,000 fine
- Class D: Crimes punishable by up to 364 days incarceration and a $2,000 fine
- Class C: Crimes punishable by up to 5 years incarceration and a $5,000 fine
- Class B: Crimes punishable by up to ten years incarceration and a $20,000 fine
- Class A: Crimes punishable by up to 30 years incarceration and a $50,000 fine
Some crimes fall outside of these classifications. For example, murder is punishable by a term of imprisonment of between 25 years and life. Special rules may also apply. For example, convicted organizations may be sentenced to pay fines in excess of those listed above.
How do I find an attorney to represent me?
If you can afford an attorney, you can consult the yellow pages or the Maine State Bar Association's Lawyer Referral and Information Service. If you can not afford an attorney and are charged with a criminal offense that could result in a sentence that includes time in jail, the court will appoint an attorney to represent you. You may be ordered to pay a portion of cost of providing that attorney. If you can not afford an attorney in a civil matter, you may wish to contact the Volunteer Lawyers' Project, Pine Tree Legal Assistance, or, if you a Maine resident age 60 or older, Legal Services for the Elderly. If you are a party in a child protective proceeding and can not afford an attorney, the court can appoint an attorney to represent you.