How do I know if my legal issue is "criminal?"
In Maine there are three basic kinds of “charges” for “offenses against the state.”
You may get a "ticket" for speeding or another minor “traffic infraction.” The ticket comes with an envelope to pat the fine to the “ViolationsBureau.” 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, but failure to request a hearing or pay fines can result in your driver’s license being suspended and a warrant issued for your arrest for failure to pay fines. You cannot get a free lawyer for traffic tickets. NOTE: Some more serious traffic violations – like going more than 30 miles over the speed limit, OUI, and “driving to endanger” – are classified as crimes.
These charges are alsonot crimes. A common “civil violations” is something like illegal possession or transportation of alcohol by a minor. You get a Summons from a police officer with a court date and location. Some civil violations have standard “waiver” fines. This is a set amount that you can pay through the Clerk's Office before your hearing date to avoid having to go to Court. Civil violations can result in fines but not jail sentences. You cannot get a free lawyer. But, if you don't go to your hearing and don't pay the fines, then a warrant can be issued for your arrest for failure to pay fines. If you go to Court for an initial appearance on your civil charge, you can talk with the “lawyer of the day” for that day only.
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. 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 if I am charged with a crime, and how do I ask for a lawyer?
For many minor offenses you will get a court summons. The Summons will tell you when you need to go to 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
- the time of your hearing
- the location of the court.
In both of these cases, you must respond to the Summons by going to court at the listed date and time. This is called your “first appearance” or “arraignment.” This is not a trial. If you don't have a lawyer yet, you have the right to:
- Plead not guilty, and
- File a CR-032 court form (Preliminary Motion for Assignment of Counsel, Affidavit and Release) and a separate court form disclosing your Social Security Number.
By filling out these court forms, you are asking the court to appoint a free lawyer. In the larger courts, a “financial screener” should be there to help you with the forms. Also, most courts will have a “lawyer of the day” to answer your questions and help you with getting a free lawyer. The forms ask for complete financial information. You must sign the forms in front of a Notary Public. Every court has someone who can witness your signature.
After you fill out the forms, 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 andthe 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. It is also possible you can be found “partially indigent” and you will be required to pay some portion of your court-appointed lawyer’s fees.
You should contact your court-appointed lawyer as soon as the court gives you their name and contact information.
What if I can't make bail?
If after 2 business days you are still in jail, the sheriff must 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. If the first appearance is by video, then the judge and prosecutor will usually be in the courtroom and you, and your lawyer, if you have one, will be at the jail. Family members and friends who want to see the first appearance may be in the courtroom. At this hearing, you can:
- Plead not guilty, and
- File a CR-032 court form (Preliminary Motion for Assignment of Counsel) and a separate court form disclosing your Social Security Number.
There may be a “financial screener” or “lawyer of the day” there. You can ask them for help with the forms. A “lawyer of the day” can also answer your other questions. If no one offers the forms, ask the judge how you can get the forms to fill out.
After you fill out the forms, a judge will decide whether you can get a free lawyer. Remember: the judge will appoint you a free lawyer onlyif you have a low income and the prosecutor will be asking for a jail sentence if you are found guilty. If you stay in jail, your court-appointed lawyer should contact you within a week or so of the Court appointing them as your lawyer. 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 can't get a free lawyer, but still need one?
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.