Navigating the Criminal Court Process and Procedure

Unless you know someone or you’ve been through the criminal process yourself, you may find yourself lost. This is understandable, given the multiple hearing dates, notices, and foreign terminology. This article seeks to help you through Maine’s criminal process by laying it out step-by-step, from arrest to sentencing.


Officers have authority to arrest a suspect for a crime upon finding probable cause to arrest. Probable cause essentially means a reasonable person would think more likely than not, a suspect committed a crime.

Officers can obtain arrest authority via a warrant, where a judge determines that probable cause exists. Alternatively, an officer can make a warrantless arrest if they reasonably have probable cause to arrest.


After arrest, an officer may release a defendant on his/her personal recognizance. The defendant agrees  to obey all laws and make future court appearances. This happens with Class D and E crimes.

Otherwise, for Class A, B, and C offenses, defendants remain in custody until the bail hearing. At this hearing, a judicial officer or bail commissioner will set the bail fee amount and conditions of release. The conditions include appearing at future court dates and obeying all laws. Depending on the case, they may also include having no contact with the alleged victims, and/or refraining from the use of drugs and alcohol.


After arrest, the district attorney will review the police report to determine if its facts are sufficient to support issuing a criminal complaint or indictment. A district attorney issues a criminal complaint (aka information) for Class D and E crimes, and issues an indictment for Class A, B, and C crimes. The difference is that with an indictment, a grand jury additionally reviews the criminal charges to determine whether there is probable cause to prosecute.


If the defendant is in custody, the process of substantiating charges and then notifying the defendant of them occurs within 48 hours from the time of arrest. The prosecution notifies the defendant of any charges at a court hearing called an arraignment.

At an arraignment, the court also appoints an attorney if a defendant cannot afford one. Afterwards, the court will ask the defendant to enter a plea of guilty, not guilty, or nolo contendre (no contest).

If a defendant enters a plea of guilty or no contest, the defendant waives the right to trial and proceeds to sentencing. With a not guilty plea, the defendant will need to appear at a dispositional hearing set at a later date (see Dispositional Hearing below).

Negotiating pleas

Negotiating a plea can occur any time after the district attorney has issued a criminal complaint or  indictment. Typically, a district attorney will provide a plea offer at arraignment and/or by the dispositional hearing.

Sometimes, a defendant can negotiate with the alleged victim to dismiss the criminal charge(s) via a civil compromise. This is available for Class D and E crimes. In a civil compromise, the alleged victim states in writing that the defendant provided compensation for the victim’s injuries and he/she would now like to dismiss the criminal charges.

Dispositional Hearing

At a dispositional hearing, a defendant notifies the court whether it should set the case for trial or not. If set for trial, the court may additionally schedule a pre-trial hearing, such as a Motion to Suppress. If not set for trial, the defendant changes the plea from not guilty to guilty or no contest and proceeds to sentencing.


For Class D and E crimes, a defendant has the right to a six-person jury. They must unanimously find a defendant guilty beyond reasonable doubt to convict a defendant of a crime.

For Class A, B, and C crimes, a defendant has a right to a 12-person jury. Again, they must all find the defendant guilty beyond a reasonable doubt to convict.


If a jury finds a defendant guilty, or if the defendant pleads guilty to a crime, a judge will set a sentencing hearing. For Class A, B, and C crimes, the court will order and review a pre-sentencing investigation report. The report provides information on the defendant’s personal background, like criminal record, employment, and family history. For all classes of offenses, defendants may speak on their own behalf before sentencing.  Victims of serious crimes may also offer their comments to the court.

Getting help with the criminal process

If you have questions regarding criminal procedures in Maine, or otherwise need the assistance of a criminal defense attorney, contact us at Law Office of Richard Berne. We strive to provide the best outcomes for our clients.