The Capital Judicial Center in Augusta and all other Maine courts have suspended trials until after May 1 amid the spread of the coronavirus. Kennebec Journal file photo by Joe Phelan

AUGUSTA — Officials have decided no trials will take place in Maine courts until after May 1 amid the spread of the coronavirus, potentially meaning some defendants accused of a crime but unable to make bail may remain behind bars for an extended period of time.

Maeghan Maloney, district attorney for Kennebec and Somerset counties, said her office will continue to try to limit the number of people held in jail while awaiting trial to only the most dangerous suspects who, if they were released, could pose a risk to the safety of the public.

Kennebec County District Attorney Maeghan Maloney

“We certainly are going to be doing everything we can to get people out of the jail and only hold the most dangerous people,” Maloney said Monday. “That’s what we’ve been doing all along. We really try to only ask for cash bail if someone is a public safety risk.”

In addition, Maloney said her office has spoken to both Ken Mason, sheriff of Kennebec County, and Dale Lancaster, sheriff of Somerset County, to encourage their deputies to whenever possible summon people to appear in court, rather than arrest them on a crime.

An emergency order from the Maine Supreme Judicial Court states all civil and criminal trials will be postponed until after May 1, and most in-person court sessions have also been canceled, other than arraignments and first appearances for defendants in jail, and bail review hearings.

Meanwhile, officials with the American Civil Liberties Union have expressed concerns the government could infringe on people’s civil liberties in responding to concerns about the coronavirus.

Zachary Heiden, legal director of ACLU of Maine, said while it is not surprising adjustments had to be made to court scheduling due to the coronavirus emergency, the courts and police need to do what they can to help prevent defendants accused, but not convicted, of a crime from languishing in jail awaiting a delayed trial.

“It’s critically important law enforcement and prosecutors work together to minimize the strain on our courts,” Heiden said. “For almost all instances a person can be issued a summons rather than being subject to custodial arrest. We’re very concerned about people in custody (in jail) because they have not been able to afford bail. We hope and expect that prosecutors and defense lawyers will go back to court to have those bail determinations reevaluated in light of the current emergency.”

He added that people in jail face potential exposure to coronavirus while at the courthouse, where it can be hard or impossible to follow social distancing guidelines and where numerous people come and go.

Darrick Banda, a defense attorney in Augusta, said most of his clients are not incarcerated so there is no harm in delaying their cases. But the firm where he practices, the Law Offices of Ronald W. Bourget, has one or two state criminal clients who are in jail so they’re asking the courts to reconsider bail for them due to the approximate seven-week delay caused by court proceedings being largely shut down.

One of those clients is a 60-year-old woman he said was jailed for a bail violation on an operating under the influence charge, for whom he has filed an emergency motion to re-address her bail. That’s expected to be heard Wednesday, a motion he said was objected to by the district attorney’s office.

He said the woman could be at higher risk if she should contract the virus while she’s incarcerated.

“She doesn’t need to be spending the next 49-plus days in jail for her violation,” Banda said by email. “The DA’s office could be working with the defense bar to help identify those folks who are most at risk if they contract COVID-19, pose little threat to the community, and who could be released with lower bail or other types of alternative supervision.”

Maloney, while not addressing that specific case, noted bail review hearings, at which motions to alter bail are heard, are one of the few court sessions still taking place.

She said the DA’s office has not considered dismissing any cases, such as misdemeanors, due to concerns about the coronavirus.

“Misdemeanors are domestic violence assaults, OUIs, so we could never just dismiss those cases, because there are victims involved,” Maloney said.

She said she has told the office’s attorneys they should still be in contact with defense attorneys, by phone not in person, to see if they can come to potential plea agreements to resolve cases, though she doesn’t yet know, if they do reach a resolution, whether the courts will agree to take up those cases before May 1.

Maloney said the attorneys remain working on cases, sometimes from their homes, and her office remains committed to ensuring criminal defendants rights are upheld and public safety interests are met.

The usually busy Capital Judicial Center in Augusta was relatively quiet Monday, with scheduled arraignments canceled, other than those for defendants in custody.

The Supreme Court’s emergency order states that people infected by COVID-19, people having had contact with others infected by it, or those who have visited areas identified as problematic due to the prevalence of it should not come to Maine’s courthouses.

Courthouses will remain open to the public. But most matters on all family, civil and criminal dockets are postponed. That means no trials and no grand jury proceedings. Any jurors should not appear for jury duty as all report dates between March 16 and May 1 are canceled.

Banda said proceedings in federal court involving juries have also been  postponed but federal court proceedings not involving juries will continue to take place.

All oral arguments scheduled for April before the Supreme Judicial Court, sitting at the Law Court, are canceled and all appeals scheduled to be argued that month will be decided on written briefs filed by the attorneys for both sides.

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