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Maine criminal law blog

A humble collection of pieces about issues in Maine criminal law and procedure by Maine attorney Zachary J. Smith.

The Start of a Criminal Case: Summons or Arrest

Like all processes, criminal prosecution must begin somewhere. In Maine criminal procedure, there are two basic ways to begin prosecution, subject to several variations. In this post, I omit some information and make some generalizations, but these are the basic procedures.

A suspected criminal may be arrested based on probable cause or an arrest warrant and then brought before a court, or he or she may be given a summons that orders him or her to come to court at a specific time. Either way, a complaint or an indictment formally charges the person, whose status changes form suspect to defendant, and he or she must answer to the charges.

If the defendant was arrested without a warrant, he or she must be brought in front of a judge for a first appearance, usually within two days (not including days when the court is closed). The rule allows for an extension based on “an extraordinary circumstance,” and in practice I’ve seen this happen only once, when a Nor’easter caused the state’s courthouses to close. The first appearance, in theory, allows each defendant who has been arrested without a warrant to challenge probable cause to continue his or detention, but in practice the presiding judge finds probable cause virtually every time. This is because the State, in effect, must only allege the elements of a specific crime were committed by the defendant to satisfy the probable cause requirement. The first appearance is held to assure the defendant is aware of basic legal rights, to inform him or her of the specific allegations, to appoint defense counsel when appropriate, to schedule the next court date if necessary, and to determine bail. It’s not the time for the defendant to, for example, claim his or her accusers are lying, tell a different version of events, argue about constitutional violations, or say it’s ridiculous that the prosecution is even occurring because the offense was so minimal. Such issues can be dealt with at later court dates, if necessary. If the defendant has been charged with only misdemeanor-level offenses, then he or she must answer to the complaint (i.e., plead guilty, not guilty, or no contest) because the first appearance is also an arraignment. If any charge is felony-level, then the defendant must acknowledge an understanding of the accusation but does not need to answer to the complaint because of the right to an indictment by the grand jury.

If the defendant was arrested with a warrant, then the same time limits apply, subject to some exceptions that arise if the defendant is more than 100 miles from the court where the warrant was issued. The functions of the first appearance are the same as when the arrest occurs without an arrest warrant, but sometimes people are arrested with a warrant that was issued after the grand jury signed an indictment. In that instance, the defendant is supposed to enter a plea when brought before a judge.

If a law enforcement officer gives a suspect a summons, then the suspect must come to a specified court on a specified date and time for a first appearance. If a complaint hasn’t been filed by that date, then the suspect isn’t a defendant and has no charge to answer to. This is neither the norm nor an extremely rare event. This may mean that prosecution was declined, but sometimes the suspect is later given a new summons for the same alleged crime. Usually, though, a complaint is filed in time, and the defendant must answer to it. In practice, summonses are much more common for lesser offenses, as people accused of more serious crimes are often arrested and compelled to post bail. For example, the State may choose to seek only a fine when a person is caught driving with a suspended license, and so a warrant-less arrest is not appropriate. The suspect or defendant who was given a summons does not have to be brought before a judge within two days, and the prosecution usually does not require bail at the first appearance. Otherwise, the procedures followed are the same as they are when the defendant is in custody for a first appearance after an arrest. (Side note: when someone is presented by a Maine law enforcement officer with a summons to court, that person must sign it; it is not an acknowledgement of guilt, and refusal to sign it is a crime.)