A criminal case usually starts with contact with law enforcement, either where the officer arrests someone or the officer issues that person a summons.
Someone who is arrested has various rights under the Maine and United States constitutions, not least the right to silence and the right to an attorney. If you are arrested, you should say nothing except to assert your rights to silence and to an attorney as anything else you say could be used against you and could be used as evidence that you are waiving your rights.
Whether you are summonsed to appear in court or are taken to court from jail after arrest, the court will explain the charges against you and your rights. Maine does not have a public defender. If you cannot afford an attorney, you will be asked if you want the court to appoint one for you.
Once you have appeared in court, the State must provide you or your attorney with discovery — this is all the evidence the State has against you. You should make sure that you read your discovery with your attorney — it is here that many defenses can be found, and so you must both make sure to read it closely.
You have certain rights under the Maine and United States constitutions, and you will have 21 days after you plead not guilty in which to file motions to protect those rights. If you are in District Court, you will also have 21 days in which to ask for a jury trial.
After your appearance in court, your attorney will begin to negotiate on your behalf with the District Attorney’s office. You should not call the DA yourself, and you should not offer any information to law enforcement yourself. Very few cases ever go to trial. Therefore, this negotiation period is extremely important. It is important that you have confidence that your attorney is doing all he or she can to argue your case with the District Attorney.
If you do not agree to take any of the State’s offers for a guilty plea, you will go to trial. Here, the jury (or judge, if you have a bench trial) will decide whether the State has proven its case beyond a reasonable doubt. You will have the right to testify. At trial, the attorney will cross-examine the State’s witnesses and you will have the right to call witnesses on your behalf, though you do not have to. The decisions of whether to testify and whether to call witnesses are extremely important decisions. Therefore, you must make sure that you understand your attorney’s advice on both points.
If you are found guilty, the judge will decide your sentence. At this point, it is important that you have an attorney who is experienced in preparing and presenting what is called “mitigation” evidence. This is evidence that is designed to put you in a positive light before the judge in order to reduce your sentence.
Every step of a criminal case is important, and has many opportunities to help or harm your case. This is why an experienced criminal defense attorney is critical at every stage of your case.