OUI, shoplifting cases to be handled differently in Waldo, Knox, Lincoln and Sagadahoc counties

District attorney details new way criminal cases will be handled

By Stephen Betts | Feb 05, 2019
Photo by: Stephen Betts District Attorney Natasha Irving

Local police say they are taking a wait-and-see attitude on new policies being used by the District Attorney's Office concerning criminal cases.

District Attorney Natasha Irving — who oversees prosecution of cases for Waldo, Knox, Lincoln and Sagadahoc counties — detailed to police departments and the judiciary how she will handle criminal cases in memos sent out last month. Irving also met last month with police chiefs and sheriffs in the four counties.

Irving said the biggest pushback she has received is on the way her office plans to handle cases involving driving under the influence, as well as theft cases in which the suspect has multiple prior convictions for theft.

She said, however, she has received significant support from law enforcement.

"This is a goal-oriented approach, recognizing that the majority of non-violent repeat offenders have mental illness and/or substance misuse disorder," Irving stated in her policy memo.

She said this approach to non-violent offenses will give prosecutors more time to focus on protecting the community from violent and dangerous offenders.

Knox County Sheriff Tim Carroll said he completely respects what the district attorney is aiming to accomplish with her policies, a philosophy with which Waldo County Sheriff Chief Deputy Jason Trundy agrees.

"It is a different approach to a recognized major problem that we have in Knox County with persons suffering with substance use disorders, mental health disorders, and her wishes of a 'just outcome' relating to the offense," Carroll said. "She has been very receptive to further discussions as different cases come up. I believe we will work together well."

Trundy, in an email statement to The Journal, said, “You quickly realize that her goal is the fair and just treatment of every defendant, witness or victim that comes into contact with the criminal justice system. The Sheriff’s Office and DA Irving share a common interest in utilizing evidence- based best practices to ensure public safety.”

“In addition, Waldo County is incredibly fortunate to have so many partner organizations that are dedicated to building a stronger community,” Trundy said, adding Irving has joined the Waldo County Recovery Committee.

“We believe that communication will be the key to moving forward and making progress,” he said.

Carroll said he and the district attorney have similar thoughts on crimes of violence, especially on domestic violence. Irving maintains that crimes of violence will generally require incarceration or commitment in a locked mental health facility.

Both Carroll and Camden and Rockport Police Chief Randy Gagne said they have instructed officers to continue to do their jobs as trained, and to issue appropriate violations.

"The decision to issue a complaint or not on violation(s) is the decision of the district attorney,” Gagne said. “…She has not asked us to do anything any different than we have done all along. I do not agree with all the changes in the new policy.

“I do, however, want to take a wait-and-see approach and give our new district attorney some time in office,” he added. “I believe that we will all work together to address issues that may come up regarding the new policies changes."

Gagne declined to say what specifically he disagrees with, saying he wants to give the new policies a chance.

The new prosecution policy on dealing with OUI cases involves the use of deferred dispositions. In cases of low impairment (less than a 0.11 blood alcohol level), if a person undergoes substance abuse counseling, the case will be dismissed in six months. If the test comes in from 0.11 to as much as 0.14, there will be a 12-month deferred disposition and the charges will be reduced to the lesser offense of driving to endanger if the person undergoes substance abuse counseling and performs 40 hours of community service.

State law sets 0.08 as the limit at which a person is considered to be under the influence.

For OUI cases in which the test is 0.15 or greater and there is either an accident or a passenger younger than 21, the driver will be placed on an 18-month deferred disposition, during which time he or she must undergo substance abuse counseling and perform 60 hours of community service.

If successful, the person would be convicted of OUI with a fine of $500 and a 150-day license suspension, as well as the alternative sentencing program in which they spend a weekend performing community service work under the supervision of jail staff.

In shoplifting cases, the district attorney is also offering a change.

"Repeat shoplifting offenses are a sign of serious mental illness, and should not be treated with incarceration and felony convictions unless all other avenues have been completely exhausted," the policy states.

The policy calls for those cases to be referred to restorative justice whenever possible. Theft charges that are at felony level because of prior theft convictions should be charged as misdemeanor offenses and deferred, either through restorative justice, or when not available, through a deferred disposition with the requirement of the person's receiving mental health treatment, paying restitution and performing community service.

Restorative justice will also be used for defendants who are 25 or younger in nonviolent cases. She said her office will work to increase the capacity of existing restorative justice programs to handle the additional cases they will receive.

"Current brain science indicates that the frontal lobe, where decisions are made and consequences appreciated, is not fully formed until the age of 25 on average," the policy states.

The new policies include declining prosecution of non-dangerous traffic offenses; declining prosecution of possession or use of marijuana or alcohol by people 18 through 20 years old; and to impose the lowest reasonable class of crime for nonviolent, non-dangerous offenses.

Prosecution of cases may also be deferred for nonviolent offenses if it could have dire collateral consequences for military service, child protective cases, immigration status, professional license status or out-of-state school enrollment.

Prior convictions should not be used to seek jail time for nonviolent, non-dangerous offenses.

The district attorney also said cash bail should only be sought for violent crimes, high-cost theft, high-quantity trafficking offenses and crimes against the judicial process. Irving said cash bail disproportionately results in poor and working people being detained prior to trial.

She also will decline to prosecute cases in which people are caught for operating motor vehicles after suspensions when the suspensions are only for not paying fines or reinstatement fees. The district attorney said operating after suspension and revocation cases disproportionately affect the poorest members of the community who have no other alternatives to get to work.

In addition, the chief prosecutor said cases from the Maine State Prison consume an inordinate amount of time and resources. She said assaults in which there are no injuries requiring medical attention, trafficking in prison contraband cases, and cases in which a significant lapse of time has occurred should not be prosecuted if disciplinary action has already been taken against prisoners by the prison.

Irving maintains that possession of illegal drugs should not result in jail time.

Most cases handled by the Maine Drug Enforcement Agency are prosecuted by the Maine Attorney General's Office. An email was sent to the AG's Office on how it will handle drug cases. No response was immediately received.

Republican Journal reporter Ethan Andrews contributed to this story.

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