A judge has dismissed two misdemeanor charges against a man in Androscoggin County because he waited 105 days without being appointed a lawyer, likely becoming the first jurist in Maine to take such action as the number of unrepresented defendants in the state has increased in recent months.

In her decision issued Thursday, District Judge Sarah Churchill lambasted the state for failing to protect the right to counsel enshrined in the Sixth Amendment.

District Judge Sarah Churchill Jill Brady/Staff Photographer, file

“The remedy chosen by the Court is a serious one and not one chosen lightly but any less significant of a remedy would trivialize the very right that the Court seeks to protect,” Churchill wrote in a 28-page order. “The right to counsel is not trivial and a serious remedy is necessary so the Sixth Amendment does not become a platitude to be theoretically applied in the halls of academia but never to darken the doorstep of a courtroom.”

The order was a striking development in what Maine Supreme Judicial Court Chief Justice Valerie Stanfill has called “a constitutional crisis.” It does not set a precedent that other judges have to follow. But Rob Ruffner, a Portland defense attorney who serves as a lawyer of the day in various county courts, said it could be a guide for lawyers and judges to consider in future cases. He said attorneys across the state have been asking judges to reduce bail conditions or dismiss charges for unrepresented defendants with little success.

“This issue has been before the court, not Judge Churchill, but it has been repeated hundreds of times over the last two to three years,” Ruffner said. “What’s striking is it’s taken so long for any judge to get to this point.”

Jim Billings, executive director of the Maine Commission on Public Defense Services, did not respond to an email or a voicemail about the case late Friday afternoon.


A message and an email to the Androscoggin County District Attorney’s Office after business hours also was not returned. The charges were dismissed without prejudice, which means the prosecutors could charge the defendant again if they so choose.

In November, the Maine Judicial Branch directed judges to meet with jailed defendants within seven days of their initial appearance if they are constitutionally entitled to a lawyer but still haven’t been appointed one. At the time, about 100 people lacked attorneys, roughly 40 of whom were in jail. If a judge doesn’t have an attorney to appoint, then a temporary “lawyer of the day” is allowed to argue for reduced bail conditions or “other matters as necessary.”

Six months later, the problem was worse than ever. The American Civil Liberties Union of Maine, which is suing the state on behalf of unrepresented defendants, recently cited data from the state that showed more than 650 people were waiting for an attorney as of May 28. Nearly one quarter were in jail. Lawyers have said judges are ignoring their arguments that these clients should be released or have their charges dropped because their constitutional rights are being violated.


The defendant in this case was arrested Feb. 23 on two charges: domestic violence assault, a Class D misdemeanor, and violation of condition of release, a Class E misdemeanor. He posted $250 cash bail three days later. Churchill wrote in her order that he did not have a lawyer during critical stages during which a defense attorney should be reviewing evidence, interviewing witnesses, analyzing the legal issues at play or possibly negotiating a plea agreement with the government.

“Moreover, (the defendant) is entitled to a zealous advocate,” she said. “It is the rare exception that absolute truth clearly resides on one side of a criminal case. Most cases contain shades of gray, matters of degree and nuance. Even in the rare cases that are black and white there is always room for disagreement. For example, reasonable minds can disagree on the interpretation of law and legal precedents, the admissibility and relevancy of evidence, and what constitutes a fair and just sentence if the defendant is convicted or pleads guilty. It is the defense counsel’s duty to present the defendant’s perspective zealously and advocate for their legitimate interests within the bounds of law and ethics.”


Churchill did not say in her order how long a wait should be considered unreasonable under the law. The defendant had a dispositional conference scheduled for June 17. The court held a hearing on the case June 10, during which Billings testified that “it would be ‘complete speculation’ for him to guess when there would be an attorney available to take the case.” A public defenders office is in the works in Androscoggin, Oxford and Franklin counties, but will not be ready to accept clients for months. When she dismissed the case a few days later, Churchill noted that the state conceded that an attorney assigned with a week or less cannot reasonably prepare for a dispositional conference. The state proposed other remedies, such as a continuance, but the judge disagreed.

“The response from (the Maine Commission on Public Defense Services), the agency that is charged with providing counsel to indigent people accused of crimes in the State, is that they are working on solutions to this problem – this includes recruiting attorneys to join rosters; developing rules and policies that allow for waivers of certain rostering requirements; a media campaign to recruit attorneys; and opening District Defender offices across the state,” Churchill wrote. “The problem is that for all this effort the lack of counsel for this defendant persists and is getting worse. At some point the fact that (the commission) is trying is not good enough to protect an accused’s right to counsel and that point in this case is now.”

Ruffner said he does not know if the judge’s decision will spur the systemic changes he feels are needed to address the problem.

“Wouldn’t it be wonderful to think so?” he said.

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