If you are charged with committing a crime, the arresting officer and/or the bail commissioner will give you a date to appear in court. The procedure is different for misdemeanors such as operating under the influence (OUI), assault, shoplifting, etc. as opposed to felonies like aggravated assault, burglary, gross sexual assault, etc.
The initial court date that you receive is called an arraignment. An arraignment is simply a date upon which you must go to court to enter a plea of guilty or not guilty. If you have a lawyer, your lawyer will send a letter to the court clerk entering a not guilty plea on your behalf, you will not need to appear in court for the arraignment.
If you plead guilty at the arraignment, you will be sentenced at that time. If you plead not guilty, in person or through a letter from your attorney, you (or your attorney) will receive a letter from the clerk within a few days giving you another date to actually appear in court. That date is a dispositional conference.
A dispositional conference is not a trial. It is an opportunity for you or your lawyer and the prosecutor to discuss a resolution of your case without putting it on the “trial list”. The overwhelming majority of cases are resolved at this point. If you are not able to reach a resolution with the prosecutor, there will be a judge available to conference with the two parties to mediate and further the attempt to resolve your case. Although your lawyer is your advocate, the final decision about whether or not to accept a negotiated plea agreement is yours. Your attorney is there to advocate, negotiate, answer your questions and advise, you are the final decision maker. If your case cannot be resolved at the dispositional conference, it will move forward to a date set for hearings on pre-trial motions.
Pre-trial motions deal with issues that a judge, not a jury, will decide. In criminal cases, these motions almost always regard evidentiary matters. The judge decides what evidence will be admissible at a potential trial.
Example: Did the arresting officer have probable cause to arrest a driver and ask him/her to submit to a breath test? If the judge rules that the officer did not have probable cause, the judge will issue an order excluding the result of the breath test from a potential trial. Obviously, this type of a result is likely to cause the prosecutor to re-think his/her position on the plea offer. You will almost certainly receive a much better offer at this time. Again, the final decision regarding whether or not to accept the offer is yours. If the case is still not resolved after the hearings on pre-trial motions, it moves on to the jury selection/trial phase.
The clerk will set a date for jury selection and trial of your case. That will usually be within a few weeks from the motion hearings date.
Felonies in Maine
Felony cases have a few different twists. The initial court date that you receive is called an initial appearance. You and your attorney, if you have one, must personally appear in court on that date. The initial appearance is a date upon which the court must ensure that you are aware of your constitutional rights, the nature of the charge(s) against you and to give you and the prosecutor an opportunity to address bail conditions. The court will not ask you to enter a plea. The clerk will give you a future date to return to court for an arraignment.
The difference between a misdemeanor and a felony procedurally is that the prosecutor must obtain a grand jury indictment in a felony case before proceeding to prosecute you. In a misdemeanor case, the prosecutor can file a formal charging document, a complaint, on his/her own after reading a police report. In a felony case, the prosecutor cannot do that. He/She must present the matter to a grand jury — a group of citizens who listen to the testimony of witnesses and decide whether or not probable cause exists to change you with a felony. If they decide that probable cause exists, they issue an indictment. An indictment is the equivalent of a complaint in a misdemeanor case; it is the formal charging document.
If the grand jury indicts you, as mentioned above, you will return to court for your arraignment — the date upon which to enter a plea of guilty or not guilty. If the plea is guilty, you will be sentenced at that time. If you plead not guilty, you will go through the same process as applies to misdemeanor cases outlined above — the clerk will assign a dispositional conference date, etc.
Whether you are charged with a misdemeanor or a felony, you should contact an experienced and effective criminal defense attorney as soon as possible. There are many things that your attorney can do for you before the arraignment/initial appearance date.
If you have been charged with committing a crime, please contact us by calling 207-879-4000 or visit us online at www.nicholschurchill.com. We are located on 1250 Forest Avenue, Portland, Maine 04103.
Disclaimer: This article is intended to provide general, not specific, information about Maine law. The publication of this article does not constitute an attorney-client relationship between the author(s) and the reader(s).