Editor’s Note: The Norway Police Department’s Citizens Academy offers the public an opportunity to learn about law enforcement and what it does from those who do it. It began in April and each week we will feature a class from the eight-week academy.

Week 2 – Criminal Law and the Court System – ADA Joseph O’Connor

Assistant District Attorney Joseph O’Connor began Week 2 of the Norway Police Department’s Citizens Police Academy explaining the two branches of law: civil and criminal.

“I represent the state,” he said, “not the victim. And sometimes the interests of the state are not always the same as that of the victim.”

He went on to explain that all crimes are statutes and every crime consists of elements and a criminal cannot be convicted unless all the elements of a crime have been proven beyond a reasonable doubt.

“We do not have good civics instruction in schools and people don’t understand,” he said, noting, “It is better for guilty to go free than innocent to be convicted.

“It is not a fair trial,” he continued. “It [the criminal justice system] is gambling with a rigged game. The defendant does not have to say anything … but the victim does. And the defendant gets to see everything the DA has but they don’t have to show the DA anything.”

He noted the general public has a lot of misconceptions about law and courts. For example, the Miranda Rights do not have to be read to question a suspect unless the suspect is in custody [arrested].

ADA Joe O’Connor explains the finer points of law. Advertiser Democrat photo by A.M. Sheehan

A defendant that blabs without even being questioned does not have to have been Mirandized. On the flip side, if the police should have Mirandized a suspect and did not, it doesn’t matter if the suspect admits to killing 10 people, it can not be used in court.

In order for the police to search someone, a vehicle, etc, they must have consent or they must have probably cause, said O’Connor. If an officer asks you to get out of the car, you must. Further, he said, police have the right to pat you down (frisk.)

In Maine, defendants have a right to counsel if they are facing jail time and are indigent (poor). The court will apply bail toward the attorney fees, he said.

O’Connor went on to describe the degrees of crime from misdemeanor to felony and the classes of each. He noted in the state of Maine parole was abolished in the 1970s and probation was instead instituted. He explained suspended and split sentences, restitution and victim’s compensation. He stressed that while law enforcement only needs probable cause to arrest or charge someone, the law requires proof beyond a reasonable doubt to convict – a far higher standard, he said, which leads to plea agreements.

O’Connor then launched into a heartfelt admonishment of the expansion of Maine laws over the course of his career. For example, he said:

In 1991 there were 12 crimes against persons on the books, six of which were felonies. In 2011, there were 37, 26 of which were felonies.

In 1991 there were 19 types of sexual assault, 12 of which were felonies. In 2011, there were 73 types, 38 of which were felonies.

“An example is unlawful sexual touching which didn’t even exit in 1991 or 2001 but did in 2011,” he shakes his head. “That was always considered an assault.”

Maine, he said, is more solicitous of defendants than some states and says a person has to be held in the least restrictive manner.

“Plea bargains,” said O’Connor, “help us achieve a just result.”

He explained sentencing as a way to prevent re-occurrence, encourage restitution, minimize correctional facility exposure that would further corrupt, eliminate inequality and administer a just individualization of sentencing.

With reference to plea bargaining, he explains, that it is win-win. He noted that juries were unpredictable and often fickle. He cites a mock trial while he was in law school where they had two juries for the same trial. They both heard the same testimony, evidence and both came back with opposite verdicts.

He noted that of the thousands of cases that cross his desk he might take six to trial. “But we review every case that comes in regardless and the [number of] cases have quadrupled since I started.”


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