As published in the Portsmouth Herald and York Weekly newspapers, “Understanding Maine’s Criminal Process“:
The criminal justice system can be scary and overwhelming. Understanding the process can help it feel less intimidating, so let’s walk through the basics of a typical criminal case.
You’ve just been arrested for the first time for Operating Under the Influence. In our scenario, you were pulled over by the police while driving, and the officer smelled alcohol on your breath. You were taken to the police station, where you blew 0.16 on Maine’s breath-alcohol testing device, the Intoxilizer. Blowing .08 or higher will lead to an OUI charge, and a resulting fine and license suspension. Unfortunately for you, blowing 0.15 or higher is a “high test,” which is an aggravating factor to your OUI charge, and could result in jail time, in addition to the fine and suspension. You bail out, and head home.
What’s going to happen next? Your license is going to be suspended by the Bureau of Motor Vehicles. But that’s a story for another day. Right now, you’re worried about that hanging jail time, and right now, you should be calling your lawyer. But let’s say you don’t make that call just yet.
Several weeks after your arrest, you need to show up for your first court appearance: your Arraignment. At your arraignment, you will learn your rights, and receive a copy of evidence (“Discovery”) that the State has against you. The judge will ask the District Attorney if there is a risk of jail for your charge. Because of that 0.16 high test, you face a mandatory minimum 48 hours in jail, so the judge will explain your right to a court-appointed attorney if you cannot afford to hire one. The judge will also ask you to enter a plea before you leave the courtroom.
Even if you think you’re guilty of OUI, you can plead not guilty and step into the court’s hallway to speak with a defense attorney who will be available to advise you. This “Lawyer of the Day” offers a free legal consultation to you – he or she is a local, private defense attorney paid by the State to give you advice on that day. You can speak freely because your conversation is covered by attorney-client privilege – anything you say to that lawyer in private will remain confidential.
Let’s say the Lawyer of the Day reviews your Discovery and notes that it’s not clear why the police officer originally pulled you over – you now have a possible defense to your OUI charge. You walk out of the courthouse, and you call your private or court-appointed lawyer.
The next time you go to court will be for your Dispositional Conference. On this day, you’ll mostly stand around while your lawyer and the district attorney discuss your case. Your lawyer will point out weaknesses (“There was no good reason for the stop!”), and the DA will point out strengths (“Look, the dash-cam footage shows your client was swerving all over the road!”), and they will discuss the best offer to fairly resolve your case.
Your lawyer will then meet with you to discuss your options. Your lawyer may think that original stop was baseless, or maybe something about your breath test was questionable. You may choose to go to trial to make the State prove its case against you. Or your lawyer may suggest that the State’s case is strong, but she has negotiated your participation in a weekend-long service project in place of jail time if you plead guilty. Maybe your lawyer has successfully argued that the high test is invalid, and the DA agreed to drop your charge to a simple OUI if you plead guilty, which means no jail time for you.
Remember: No matter your charge, a Guilty plea is a conviction. Convictions can carry serious consequences. Certain convictions carry a lifetime ban on the possession of firearms or ammunition; other convictions can result in driver’s license suspensions or revocations. If you were not born in the United States, a guilty plea may result in immigration consequences. If you are a U.S. citizen, a guilty plea may prevent your international travel, including to Canada.
While most criminal cases in the U.S. end in a plea agreement before trial, the choice to plead guilty or take your case to trial is entirely yours. Ask your lawyer questions, and carefully consider all your options.