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What happens if I am charged with a crime? Can I get a lawyer?
How do I know if my legal issue is “criminal?”
In Maine there are three general categories of “charges” for “offenses against the state.”
- Traffic tickets. You may get a "ticket" for speeding ticket or another minor “traffic infraction.” The ticket comes with an envelope for payment of a fine to the “Violations Bureau.” You can have a hearing before a judge if you think you are not guilty or have a defense. Send your request for a court hearing to the Violations Bureau. More information here. Otherwise, pay your fine to the Violations Bureau. Go here to learn more about the Bureau's PayTixx system and ways to pay your ticket. These offenses are not crimes and cannot result in jail. You cannot get a free lawyer. (NOTE: Some more serious traffic violations – such as going more than 30 miles over the speed limit, OUI, and “driving to endanger” – are classified as crimes.)
- Civil violations. These charges are also not crimes. The most common “civil violations” are illegal possession of small amounts of marijuana and illegal possession or transportation of alcohol by a minor. You receive a Summons from a police officer with a court date and location. Civil violations can result in fines but not jail sentences. You cannot get a free lawyer.
- Criminal charges. You will be summonsed or arrested. The officer issuing a summons can tell you if the charge is a crime or a civil violation. All criminal charges carry a possible jail sentence, but many less serious criminal charges do not actually result in jail time. You have a right to a free lawyer paid for by the state if:
- You cannot afford a lawyer, and
- The prosecutor will want the court to put you in jail if you are found guilty.
What will happen when I am charged with a crime, and how do I ask for a lawyer?
For many minor offenses you will receive a court Summons. The Summons will tell you when you need to appear in court.
In other situations, the officer will arrest you. For almost all crimes, a bail commissioner will set bail within a few hours after your arrest. If you can make bail, you will get a court Summons before you leave the jail. The Summons will include your first court date and time and the location of the court.
In both of these cases, you must respond to the Summons by appearing in court at the listed date and time. This is often referred to as your “first appearance” or “arraignment.” This is not a trial. If you do not yet have a lawyer, you have the right to:
- Plead not guilty, and
- File a CR-032 court form (Preliminary Motion for Assignment of Counsel, Affidavit and Release)
By filling out this court form, you are asking the court to appoint a free lawyer. In the larger courts, a “financial screener” should be present to help you with the form. Also, most courts will have a “lawyer of the day” to answer your questions and help you with getting a free lawyer. The form asks for complete financial information. You must sign the form in front of a Notary Public. Every court has someone who can witness your signature.
After you fill out the form, a judge will decide whether you can get a free lawyer. Remember: the judge will appoint a free lawyer only if you have a low income and the prosecutor will be asking for a jail sentence if you are found guilty. If your request is denied, then it is up to you to find a lawyer or to deal with your case on your own.
What if I cannot make bail?
If after 2 business days you are still in jail, the sheriff will take you to see the judge. This is called your “first appearance” or “arraignment”. This is not a trial. This hearing may be by video conference from the jail. At this hearing, you can:
- Plead not guilty, and
- File a CR-032 court form (Preliminary Motion for Assignment of Counsel)
There may be a “financial screener” or “lawyer of the day” present. You can ask them for help with the form. A “lawyer of the day” can also answer your other questions. If no one offers the form, ask the judge how you can get the form to fill out.
After you fill out the form, a judge will decide whether you can get a free lawyer. Remember: the judge will appoint you a free lawyer only if you have a low income and the prosecutor will be asking for a jail sentence if you are found guilty. If you remain in jail, your court-appointed lawyer should contact you within a week or so. If your request is denied, then it us up to you to find a lawyer or to deal with your case on your own.
You can find lawyers listed in your local phone book or online. Also, the Maine Bar Association offers a lawyer referral service: 1-800-860-1460. For a $25 fee, they will refer you to a lawyer who will give you a free one-half hour consultation. After that, it is up to you and the lawyer to set up a fee agreement.
Updated June 2015