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Samuel Crankshaw

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April 5, 2023

AUGUSTA – The ACLU of Maine is calling on the State Legislature to pass An Act to Enact the Maine Speedy Trial Act following last week’s Law Court ruling outlining the state’s obligation to ensure defendants are afforded their right to a speedy trial.

The Maine Supreme Judicial Court reiterated in Dennis Winchester v. State of Maine that the state is responsible for ensuring all people charged with an alleged crime are guaranteed a speedy trial. The ruling states that any delays in bringing a case to trial because of court backlogs or slow movement from judges is not the fault of the accused, but of the state. Importantly, the Court specified that the responsibility to ensure a speedy trial lies with both judges and prosecutors.

The Court noted that while it is the judiciary’s role to interpret the Maine Constitution, it is the legislature’s job to adopt clearer policies to guarantee this right exists not only on paper, but also in practice. The ACLU of Maine is now calling on lawmakers to pass legislation that would establish clear timelines for when cases should be brought to trial, limit the amount of time people can be detained pre-trial – a time they are presumed innocent – and establish time limits for each phase of prosecution. The legislation, sponsored by Representative Matthew Moonen of Portland, has not yet been printed.

The case arose after Dennis Winchester was charged and forced to wait years for his cases to be resolved. According to the Court’s opinion, “the time between when Winchester was initially charged and when each case was resolved ranged from thirty-three to forty-two months.” At the invitation of the Court, the ACLU of Maine presented a friend of the court brief in October 2022. In the brief, the ACLU urged the justices to analyze this right within the framework of the Maine Constitution, arguing that the “federal constitution sets the floor, not the ceiling, for the protection of individual rights in Maine.”

In advance of the October 2022 presentation, ACLU of Maine Legal Director Carol Garvan said “the state has the responsibility to ensure a fair process for everyone it charges with a crime.” Garvan noted that historically high backlogs of criminal cases are forcing some people to wait years for their day in court.

“It is the state’s responsibility to prove a person is guilty when the government chooses to charge a person with a crime,” said ACLU of Maine Policy Director Meagan Sway. “People's lives can be upended when they are charged with committing a criminal offense. No Mainer should be detained, separated from their family and community, and unable to work simply because the state cannot carry out its basic duties in a timely manner.”

“The speedy trial failures are just one of many broad and disturbing trends in Maine’s legal system, including inadequate access to legal counsel as required by the Sixth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. The deck is currently stacked against the people and in favor of the state. Passing this legislation into law will move Maine one step closer to having a fairer legal system. Lawmakers must pass this legislation to uphold the guarantees of the Maine Constitution and ensure no person is ever subjected to life altering and arbitrary delays again.”