Maine faces a key hurdle in effort to speed up criminal trials

By Billy Kobin, Bangor Daily News Staff

AUGUSTA — Lawmakers approved a plan in April to ensure Maine begins providing defendants with clear start dates for criminal trials, but the proposal will not take effect unless it receives the necessary funding.

The “speedy trials” measure from Rep. Matt Moonen, D-Portland, faced months of discussions before it was approved in an amended form last month. Supporters said Maine is one of nine states with no clear timelines for criminal cases, despite the state and U.S. constitutions including the right to a speedy trial.

The changes would come as Maine courts have struggled with a backlog of cases and as hundreds of low-income adults in the state remain without attorneys, though lawmakers have sought to fix the problem by funding new public defender offices and positions

Still, Moonen’s measure is sitting on the Special Appropriations Table, where hundreds of bills that require funding often languish. The bill would cost an estimated $778,000 this fiscal year to create 12 assistant district attorney positions, with the General Fund cost growing to about $2.25 million by 2026.

Lawmakers could consider about $11.4 million in unspent money in the budget when they return May 10 to handle the governor’s vetoes, but it is rare for bills requiring money to get funded at this late stage in the legislative session.

Moonen’s proposal initially required cases of murder or felonies involving defendants in custody to begin within six months of the arraignment or first court appearance or within nine months for defendants not in custody. For misdemeanors, trials would have been required to start within 45 days for those in custody or 60 days for those not in jail. 

Both the initial and amended versions would pause the clock for delays — such as continuances, appeals or mental incompetency determinations — but require courts to dismiss cases for good if the trial did not start on time.

After facing concerns from prosecutors, Gov. Janet Mills’ administration, Attorney General Aaron Frey and law enforcement that it could set unrealistic and burdensome requirements on an already-stretched Maine court system and hurt victims, Moonen amended his proposal to push back the timelines, allow courts to expand them to avoid issues such as a “miscarriage of justice” and let judges dismiss cases without prejudice, meaning charges could get refiled.

Regardless of its fate, Moonen said it “doesn’t have to be a final point in the conversation.”

“I think we all recognize it’s problematic to have people waiting for years for trial,” Moonen said.

Beginning in 2026, the amended bill would require trials for murder and Class A felony cases to start within two years after arraignment hearings, within 15 months for lower-level felonies and within a year for misdemeanors. Starting in 2028, the two-year timeline for murder and Class A cases would remain in effect but would drop to 12 months for other felonies and nine months for misdemeanors. By 2030, the other felony cases would have to start within nine months and misdemeanors would need to start within six months.

Judicial Branch spokesperson Barbara Cardone said the state’s court system “can work with” the final version of Moonen’s proposal, while prosecutors and defense lawyers had lingering issues with the plan for different reasons.

Chris Almy, district attorney for Penobscot and Piscataquis counties, said he supports the idea of trying to speed up cases but is concerned over trials getting delayed and then dismissed due to a lack of available court personnel and resources.

“I think that’s unfair to the victims, especially children,” Almy said.

Augusta lawyer Matt Morgan, with the Maine Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers, called Moonen’s bill well-intentioned but said its extended timelines will not fix backlogs and delays.

“The bill’s numerous exceptions and the court’s ability to simply ‘dismiss without prejudice’ also means that violations of a defendant’s speedy trial rights may still go unchecked,” Morgan said.

Moonen mentioned the case of a man, Dennis Winchester, who argued he was harmed by waiting three years for a trial in Aroostook County. The Maine Supreme Judicial Court issued an opinion last year that sent his case back to a lower court and found timelines are “appropriately set by legislatures, not courts.”

Moonen acknowledged ongoing funding “is a big question.”

“I would hope this would be on the top of the list,” Moonen said.

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