Types of Cases
All legal matters brought before the courts are classified as either criminal or civil.
1. Criminal Cases:
Criminal cases are brought by the State against persons accused of committing a crime. The State brings the charge because a crime is considered an offense against society. Normally, the local District Attorney's office represents the State and prosecutes the case against a defendant. If the defendant is found guilty, the penalty may be imprisonment, a fine, probation or other supervised release, or a combination of these. If a fine is assessed, it is paid to the State, not to the victim of the crime. In some cases, however, the judge may also order the defendant to make restitution to the victim for any losses caused by the crime. Regardless of whether restitution is or is not ordered, the victim may recover compensation for the losses by bringing a civil action against the offender.
Criminal offenses are divided by the Maine Criminal Code into classes according to the seriousness of the offense and the penalty. Classes A, B and C are the more serious offenses; Classes D and E, the least. Murder, the most serious crime, has separate sentencing provisions. The principal offenses in each class are summarized in Table I.
Examples of Offenses
|Murder||Murder||25 years imprisonment to life with no possibility of release.|
|A||Manslaughter, kidnapping, rape, arson||Not to exceed 30 years imprisonment and/or $50,000 fine.|
|B||Aggravated assault, drug trafficking, burglary of a residence||Not to exceed 10 years imprisonment and/or $20,000 fine.|
|C||Perjury, burglary, theft of $1,000 - $5,000||Not to exceed 5 years imprisonment and/or
|D||Assault, operating under the influence, theft of property, the value of which is between $1,000 - $2,000||Not to exceed 1 year imprisonment and/or
|E||Disorderly conduct, operating after suspension, theft of property, the value of which is less than $1,000||Not to exceed 6 months imprisonment and/or $1,000 fine.
Note: For any of these offenses except murder the judge may also impose a period of probation (with a variety of special conditions), order restitution, order the defendant to perform community service, or a combination of these.
The purpose of a criminal trial is to determine whether the defendant is guilty or not guilty of the charge. Since the penalty for a crime may be very serious, including the deprivation of liberty, the State is held to a high standard of proof. The law presumes that the defendant is innocent, and the State must prove his or her guilt beyond a reasonable doubt. Because the defendant does not have to prove innocence, the finding is not guilty, rather than innocent, if the State fails to meet its burden of proof.
Except for most motor vehicle criminal violations, and some hunting and fishing offenses, persons under the age of 18 who are charged with criminal conduct are considered to be juveniles. Procedure in a juvenile case is different from that in an adult case. An intake worker advises the District Attorney whether to prosecute. The trial is heard in District Court by a judge alone. Trials of Class D and E offenses are closed to the public. A juvenile murder trial and trials of Class A, B and C offenses are open to the public. A juvenile who is charged with murder, or a Class A, B or C offense may be tried as an adult, when certain legal conditions are met.
2. Civil Actions:
Civil actions are normally cases between private persons or corporations to resolve disputes involving the break-up of a family or domestic relationship or the breach of a legal duty owed by one party to another and to fix damages for loss caused by the breach, or to fashion a remedy to prevent future loss.
The most common civil actions deal with:
- divorce and family matters,
- breaches of contract,
- negligently caused personal injury and property damage,
- debt collection,
- landlord-tenant disputes, and
- protection from abuse.
The State (or any other governmental body) may be a party to a civil action, if its interests have been injured, or if the case is one in which the Legislature has provided that the body may be sued by a citizen for causing injury.
If you are bringing a civil action, you must prove your case against the party you are suing by a preponderance of the evidence-- a lesser standard of proof than that which the State must meet in a criminal case. In some civil cases, you must prove your case by clear and convincing evidence which is a more stringent standard than a preponderance standard.
You must have good grounds to bring a suit. If you file a suit frivolously or to harass a person, the court may assess a monetary penalty against you or your attorney.
The Legislature has created a special class of civil actions that includes offenses not regarded as serious enough to be dealt with as crimes. These less serious offenses are called civil violations. They include minor traffic infractions, possession of a small amount of marijuana, and violations of town and city laws (called ordinances), such as leash laws. You may be fined, but not imprisoned, for a civil violation.
A law enforcement officer who believes that you have committed a civil violation will issue you a ticket or citation instructing you to appear in District Court on a certain date. At the trial, the District Attorney or City Attorney must prove that it is more likely than not that you acted as charged. If you do not appear in court, or pay your fine, on the day specified, the offense becomes more serious. In the case of a traffic violation, you may lose your driver's license.
In most civil and criminal cases each party has the right to appeal the decision to a different court. The issues heard on appeal, however, are limited to questions of law considered in the trial court. A trial judge's decision about what the law is or whether to admit testimony is generally reviewable, but a jury's (or judge's) decision to believe or disbelieve properly admitted evidence is reviewable only for abuse of discretion or insufficiency of evidence.
Most District Court appeals are filed directly to the Supreme Judicial Court. Small claims appeals and forcible entry and detainer appeals are filed in the Superior Court.
Appeals from the Superior Court may be taken to the Supreme Judicial Court.
The Supreme Judicial Court is the State's highest court and the court of final appeal. It has seven justices, presided over by the Chief Justice, the head of the Judicial Branch.
The Court's major job is to decide appeals on questions of law that arise in civil actions and criminal trials. Questions of law are presented to the Court when a case is appealed from a trial court. Parties or their lawyers present written briefs and oral arguments outlining their respective positions. The justices reflect on the questions presented and issue a written opinion deciding the issues in accordance with the Court's view of the law and reversing or affirming the lower court's decision or a brief memorandum of decision briefly describing the outcome in a particular case.
The Guide for Appeals to the Maine Supreme Judicial Court is designed for those who are not familiar with procedures for appealing cases to the Law Court.