April 22, 2018
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LD 444 would return common sense to court system

By Richard L. Rhoda, Special to the BDN

LD 444, An Act to Allow a Verdict in a Criminal Trial to be Considered a De Minimis Infraction, will allow the jury the legal right to use its common sense in reaching a verdict on misdemeanor violations of law.

This bill, scheduled for a public hearing today before the Judiciary Committee, should be of great interest to all Maine residents interested in returning a degree of common sense to our court system for the good of the people and even the juries.

Our Anglo-Saxon system of justice developed from the belief that its people could apply their collective wisdom to secure justice to the affairs of their daily existence. This common sense of the people evolved into what we today look back on as the common law.

It is well known that juries have, and still do, return not guilty verdicts when they have a gut feeling that to do so would not render fair justice. This bill will allow them to do so with a clear conscious.

In today’s society, records for the most minimal violations of law can give a person a criminal record he must carry for life. These can have life-long consequences affecting job application or even the rearing of one’s own family in years to come.

For more than 30 years state law has allowed a judge to dismiss a criminal charge if the defendant’s conduct alleged and the circumstances under which it took place:

A. Was within a customary expectation of our daily actions in society and was not expressly refused by the person whose interest was infringed and does not defeat the purpose of the law; or

B. Did not actually cause the harm sought to be prevented or did so only to an extent too trivial to justify a person having a criminal conviction forever on his record; or

C. Presents such other circumstances that the conduct cannot reasonably be regarded as what the Legislature had in mind when establishing the crime.

LD 444, sponsored by Rep. Richard Cleary, D-Houlton, would simply allow a jury of ones peers to consider these factors in reaching a verdict in a Class D or Class E crime. The maximum penalties allowed for these classes of crimes are a jail sentence of 364 days and-or a fine up to $2,000. These are generally considered the minor criminal charges necessary to maintain good government of our society.

The more serious crime of olden days were crimes against “The King.” Today they are found in Class A, B and C felonies which carry punishment ranging from being sent to prison for life to fines of up to $50,000.

Such crimes go to the very basis of our need for the rule of law to govern our society. LD 444 will not allow a De Minimus acquittal finding by a jury of felony charges.

In 1975, our Legislature recognized that not every minimal violation of the criminal law need result in the finding of guilt on a person’s record. Previously such discretion was sole determination of the district attorney who would use his fair judgment to decide if a person should be charged with a given crime. The Legislature found it preferable that this authority be shared by both the executive and judicial branches of government. Common sense was not found to preside with only one person in the executive branch of government in each county.

LD 444 only seeks to return to the jury system that common sense which we share as a result of our collective experiences in life.

Who better than a jury of one’s peers to decide if a person’s conduct was “within a customary expectation” or “did not actually cause the harm sought to be prevented or did so only to an extent too trivial to justify that one have a criminal record for the rest of his life?”

Richard L. Rhoda is a lawyer in Houlton.

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