The Maine criminal code is a collection of statutes passed by the state legislature. These laws make certain conduct illegal and specify penalties for the crimes. Reading the statute that defines a particular crime will give you some information, but won’t tell the whole story. To really understand how Maine’s criminal code works you need to know how statutes, case law, rules of procedure and rules of evidence interact to form what might be called Maine criminal law. This article addresses the following topics:
- What is the Maine Criminal Code?
- The Criminal Code’s Structure
- What are Elements of a Crime?
- What are Culpable States of Mind?
- Maine’s Statutory Criminal Defenses
- The Criminal Code’s Definitions
- Criminal Case Law
- Maine Rules of Criminal Procedure
- Maine Rules of Evidence
- How it All Works Together
You can use these links to view the state websites and corresponding documents:
- Maine Criminal Code Title 17-A
- Maine Motor Vehicle Statutes Title 29-A
- Maine Case Law, Supreme Court Opinions are here
- Maine Rules of Criminal Procedure are here
- Maine Rules of Evidence are here
What is the Maine Criminal Code?
Every year, the State legislature meets to enact, repeal or modify Maine law. As part of that work, they consider what is going to be illegal and and what the punishments will be. Sometimes, there are efforts to make Maine’s criminal law more lenient like this proposal to increase the dollar amount that triggers felony theft charges. Those efforts usually fail. More frequently, there are proposals to make the criminal law more punitive, like this change to increase the suspensions for first offense OUI. These bills often pass and become law.
Luckily, our constitution requires that the people be notified that certain things are illegal and that’s where the Maine criminal code comes in. It’s a collection of all the statutes that the legislature has passed into law defining the crimes and punishments for them. It also includes other bits about defenses and evidence and what courts can and can’t do.
Maine Criminal Statutes, How They’re Organized
Maine’s Statutes are organized into 56 “titles” which contain parts, that are broken down into chapters, which are made up of sections. Sections are referred to by the § symbol and are often divided into subsections. When people talk about the Maine criminal code, they mean Title 17-A of Maine’s Statutes. There are three parts to the code but the meat of it is in part two, that has the chapters listing crimes recognized under maine law. There are 21 chapters there but they are not numbered sequentially since sections have been repealed and replaced over the years. Here they are:
- Chapter 9: Offenses Against The Person §201 – §213
- Chapter 11: Sex Assaults §251 – §261
- Chapter 12: Sexual Exploitation Of Minors §281 – §285
- Chapter 13: Kidnapping And Criminal Restraint §301 – §303
- Chapter 15: Theft §351 – §362
- Chapter 17: Burglary And Criminal Trespass §401 – §405
- Chapter 18: Computer Crimes §431 – §435
- Chapter 19: Falsification In Official Matters §451 – §457
- Chapter 21: Offenses Against Public Order §501 – §516
- Chapter 23: Offenses Against The Family §551 – §557
- Chapter 25: Bribery And Corrupt Practices §601 – §609
- Chapter 27: Robbery §651 – §652
- Chapter 29: Forgery And Related Offenses §701 – §708
- Chapter 31: Offenses Against Public Administration §751 – §760
- Chapter 33: Arson And Other Property Destruction §801 – §807
- Chapter 35: Prostitution And Public Indecency §851 – §855
- Chapter 37: Fraud §901 – §909
- Chapter 39: Unlawful Gambling §951 – §961
- Chapter 41: Criminal Use Of Explosives And Related Crimes §1001 – §1004
- Chapter 43: Weapons §1051 – §1058
- Chapter 45: Drugs §1101 – §1123
The remaining parts are important too. Part one covers definitions and general matters, part three covers sentencing. Some of this is discussed further below but here are some of the highlights from around the rest of the code:
- Statute of Limitations. This provides that, most of the time, felony prosecutions must be brought within 6 years of the offense and misdemeanors within three years. See 17-A §8
- Criminal Sentencing: Part 3 of the criminal code is all about sentencing and there is a lot there. You can read my article for details about Maine’s sentencing law with links to specific statutes.
- Statutory Defenses: These are discussed below and provide that, under the right conditions, a person is sometimes justified in doing something that would otherwise be a crime.
Elements of the Crime
The most basic and important thing that Maine criminal statutes do is to define the elements of each crime. The elements are the things that the state has to prove beyond all reasonable doubt in order to get a conviction. For instance, in an OUI case, the state must prove that the person,
- Operated or Attempted to Operate
- A Motor Vehicle
- And at the time had a breath or blood alcohol concentration of .08 or more or,
- Were under the influence of intoxicants
Note that the DA does not have to prove a so-called “State of mind” to prove operating under the influence. That means that the defendant does not have to act with the intent to drive drunk or even know that they are intoxicated in order to be convicted of the crime.
Culpable States of Mind
Some crimes require proof that a person acted with a “culpable state of mind.” For example, theft is only proved where the defendant takes something with the intent to deprive the owner of that property. A person who accidentally takes your coat from the coat check and one who takes it to sell have both done the same act, but only one of them has committed a crime. States of mind can be a very thorny issue and can be difficult for the prosecution to prove. Here are some simplified definitions of the Maine’s culpable states of mind.
Culpable State of Mind in Maine Criminal Law 17-A §35
- Intentionally: A person acts intentionally when it is their conscious object to cause such a result.
- Knowingly: A person acts knowingly when the person is aware that it is practically certain that their conduct will cause such a result.
- Recklessly: A person acts recklessly when the person consciously disregards a risk that their conduct will cause such a result.
- Criminal negligence: A person acts with criminal negligence when the person fails to be aware of a risk that their conduct will cause such a result.
A good defense attorney will often try to present argument or evidence to show that, even if the conduct was committed, the defendant lacked the state of mind needed to prove the crime.
Maine’s Statutory Criminal Defenses
Maine’s criminal statutes describe some defenses. These defenses are a set of facts or circumstances that allow a person to legally do something that would normally constitute a crime. These are described at 17-A Chapter 5 and include:
- Competing Harms: Allows a person to engage in criminal conduct to avoid to imminent physical harm. For example, breaking into a structure to hide from an attacker.
- Self Defense or Defense of Others: Allows one to use force against someone that the person believes is about to attack them or someone else.
- Defense of Premises: Allows a person in control of premises to use force against another who is committing or about to commit a criminal trespass, burglary or arson, upon the premisses.
- Defense of Property: Allows a person to use force to prevent unlawful taking of or damage to their property, or to retake their property immediately after it is taken.
- Duress: Provides a defense where a person only committed a criminal act because another person compelled them to by force or by threat of serious bodily injury.
- Involuntary Conduct: This is especially applicable to possession offenses like drug possession. It provides a defense to possession if the person (a) Did not knowingly procure or receive the thing possessed; or (B) Was not aware of the person’s control of the possession for a sufficient period to have been able to terminate the person’s possession.
There are other defenses articulated in the statutes but these are the most common. There are also other defenses, like entrapment, which are not defined by statute. Other defense theories try to negate elements of the crime but these are not technically defenses. Intoxication, for instance, is not a “defense” as it does not justify one’s conduct. Intoxication can however negate the intentional or knowing state of mind element for some crimes.
The Code’s Definitions
Maine statutes also try to define the terms they use. Those definitions are found at 17-A §2 and include such terms as:
- Bodily injury
- Deadly force
- Dangerous weapon
Statutory definitions give some guidance but, most of the interpretation of statutory language occurs on appeal. In its written decisions, the Maine Supreme court often defines terms and language to guide future trial courts hearing criminal cases. The Statutory definitions are a starting point but they will never fully explain what the laws means. For that, we need case law.
Criminal Case Law: Supreme Court Decisions
While the statutes define some important terms, they don’t cover everything, and the legislators didn’t think of every conceivable scenario when they drafted the laws. A lot of the practical definitions and interpretation of Maine’s criminal code come from case law.
When lawyers talk about case law, they’re talking about an appellate court’s interpretation of legal principles and statutes. Terms like “operate” in the OUI context, and “imminent bodily injury” for self defense purposes are not defined by statute but by prior supreme court cases which addresses these questions. These interpretations become “law” in that it’s binding on Maine’s lower courts and will guide the way the future cases proceed through the system.
Maine Rules of Criminal Procedure
The rules of criminal procedure explain how the case should proceed through the court system. They do things like:
- Set deadlines for the DA to turn over discovery or evidence to the defense
- Set a 48 hour deadline for initial court appearance after arrest
- Set deadlines for filing certain notices and pretrial motions
- Detail how the jury selection and trial process must proceed
These rules create a sort of guide to the process but, more than that, they protect the rights of the accused and sometimes they can be used to the defense advantage. An attorney who knows the rules might find that the prosecution is somehow improper or that that the DA has violated the defendant’s rights by not complying with the rules. In the mose serious case, rule violations might force the court to dismiss the charge.
Maine Rules of Evidence
A trial is a very artificial process, it’s not just about saying what happened and getting the jury’s opinion. The statutory elements, definitions, and defenses are complicated stuff and the jury must consider all that as applied to the testimony, photographs, documents and other evidence admitted at trial.
While the jury decides on guilt or innocence, the judge decides the evidentiary issues. Maine’s Rules of evidence are then extremely important because they shape what the jury actually hears. Sometimes trials are won and lost on evidentiary rulings: here’s an example from a recent OAS trial. The criminal defense lawyer who understands the rule of evidence will know what information they can likely keep out and what evidence will come in.
How it All Works Together
In the end, understanding a criminal case is a lot more than knowing what the statute says. A good criminal defense attorney needs to understand the code, the definitions, the case law that further develops the statutory language, the defenses available, the rules of procedure and the rules of evidence. Attorneys who are doing it right are thinking about how the trial might unfold from the first meeting with the client.