Justice delayed is justice denied

Two young men from Puerto Rico, employed at the lobster processing plant in Prospect Harbor and sending money home to their families, were held in the Hancock County Jail for almost seven months awaiting trial. At issue was a drug charge lodged after the driver of the car in which they were passengers was pulled over by police for erratic operation. A search of the car yielded a small amount of heroin, scales, drug packaging materials and transaction ledgers. Though the driver told police the heroin was his, all three were charged. The date was Aug. 30, 2017.

The two young men went to trial March 26. They had been held on $20,000 bail each for nearly seven months. As soon as the prosecution rested its case against the two, their lawyers stood and made a motion for acquittal on the grounds of insufficient evidence. The judge agreed. Case dismissed.

What’s wrong with this picture is obvious: two young men, locally employed, are kept behind bars for half a year on charges so fragile that the judge tosses out the cases the minute he is asked to do so.

Less obvious is assigning blame. Are the police at fault? The district attorney? The defense lawyers? The court system?

We suggest it’s the system. Further, the era in which we live.

Shortly after their arrest, on Sept. 1, 2017, the court set bail for Joseph Rivera, 19, and Ricardo Roman, 20. The two were provided with court-appointed attorneys. The attorneys made no motion to review or reduce their clients’ bail.

Dispositional conferences, where the merits of the case are discussed among the defense, prosecution and a judge, were scheduled for Nov. 16, then continued to Dec. 21. A motion to suppress evidence was filed but denied after a hearing Jan. 26, at which the court found that the traffic stop, arrests and search were lawful.

The jury-waived trial was held March 26. The driver of the car pleaded guilty to unlawful possession of scheduled drugs and received a sentence of three years, all but nine months suspended. His unlucky passengers were acquitted on defense motion after the state presented its case and rested. The state was unable to prove that those two defendants possessed or had control over the drugs that had been found.

One can accuse the district attorney of being overzealous. But with opioid and heroin deaths a daily reality in Maine — and drug arrests a weekly reality in Hancock County — would we really want an under-zealous prosecutor?

The courts in Maine are fully scheduled. The introduction in 2015 of the Unified Criminal Docket, which merged District Court and Superior Court cases, was intended to speed things up. Has it? Or has it created a jumble of cases, challenging courts and attorneys to sort the misdemeanors from the felonies while defendants remain incarcerated?

And what of the pittance paid to court-appointed attorneys who have to work extra hard in their private practices to make up for diminished earnings representing the indigent?

Until the delays of an overburdened, underfunded court system are addressed — and unless there is a general call for less aggressive prosecution of drug cases — ours will remain a system of crime and punishment, not justice. And even some of those found not guilty will be part of the collateral damage.

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