Some lawmakers want to set limits on how much time it takes to bring a criminal defendant to trial
A group of lawmakers want to set limits on the length of time it takes to bring a criminal defendant to trial as Maine’s court system continues to grapple with a massive backlog of cases.
Rep. Matt Moonen, D-Portland, said he recently heard from someone who waited nearly four years for his assault case to come to court. Moonen said that's not an isolated case. And he told the Judiciary Committee on Wednesday that such delays violate the state's obligation to provide defendants with a speedy trial.
The Portland Democrat is sponsoring a bill that would require trials to begin within 180 days for felony defendants who are in jail and within 270 days for defendants who are no longer incarcerated. The bill, which has seven Democratic and Republican co-sponsors, would set time limits of 45 days and 60 days, respectively, for individuals facing non-felony charges depending on whether or not they are in jail.
"People in Maine are currently waiting years to go to trial,” Moonen told the committee during a public hearing. “That is unfair, unconstitutional and unacceptable. The state bears the responsibility of bringing people to trial speedily. And if it can't do that, it has to reprioritize and reallocate resources."
Maine's court system already had a backlog of cases before the COVID-19 pandemic put in-person trials on hold. Today, the criminal backlog is estimated at more than 20,000 cases.
The ACLU of Maine and the Maine Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers say it is time for Maine to join the 41 states that set time frames for trials to begin after a defendant's arraignment or initial appearance. But representatives from the Maine Prosecutors Association, the Maine State Police and Attorney General Aaron Frey testified on Wednesday that the proposed timelines are unrealistic given current resources, especially for complex cases.
"I just want to talk about the primary concern of my office and that's with homicide cases,” Frey said, speaking in opposition to the bill. “So, generally, it takes a year to 14 months for these cases to be fully ready go to go trial, preparation on both sides, the prosecution and defense. That's the time it takes for the full investigation, expert testing to be completed, mental health evaluations to be completed and for the defense to prepare it's defense witnesses."
Frey said he is open to writing time limits into law but says those restrictions need to be based on the on-the-ground experience of both prosecutors and defense attorneys. The committee will hold a work session on the bill on a future date.