Brace yourselves, voters in Gorham. This fall’s local ballot is sure to make you squirm.
We’re talking about a clause in the Gorham Town Charter that automatically gives a member of the Town Council the heave-ho should he or she “be convicted of a crime involving moral turpitude.” Meaning what?
Good question. So good that it’s headed for this November’s municipal election.
“It’s really a crime where you intentionally do something to somebody that really has an evil purpose, or a bad, negative purpose,” opined Councilor Benjamin Hartwell in an interview on Wednesday.
What it doesn’t include, in Hartwell’s view, is a first offense for driving drunk.
A little history:
In the wee hours of March 22, Hartwell lost control of his Saturn on Fort Hill Road in Gorham, hit a tree, rolled the vehicle over and subsequently registered a blood-alcohol content of 0.15 percent – almost twice the legal limit.
This week, Hartwell appeared in court to plead guilty to operating under the influence. His plea agreement, which includes a 150-day suspension of his license, calls for him to pay a $750 fine and spend a weekend next month participating in an alternative sentencing program.
That may be because two years ago, then-Gorham Councilor Suzanne Phillips pleaded guilty to the same crime after she sideswiped two parked cars and drove away. Following lengthy deliberations in that case, the council ultimately decided that drunken driving did not rise to the level of “moral turpitude” and thus was not cause to evict Phillips from her seat.
Now, in the wake of Hartwell’s conviction, the debate is back. Only this time, the council has placed a question on this November’s ballot that will essentially ask voters, “How bad is too bad? Should ‘moral turpitude’ be defined to include everything from murder all the way down to, say, driving drunk?”
According to Merriam Webster’s Dictionary of Law, “moral turpitude” is “an act or behavior that gravely violates the sentiment or accepted standard of the community.”
The operative word there would be “gravely.” The dictionary goes on to note, “Theft, perjury, vice crimes, bigamy, and rape have generally been found to involve moral turpitude, while liquor law violations and disorderly conduct generally have not.”
Gorham, by the way, is hardly the only community that draws behavioral boundaries around its elected leaders. Dive into municipal charters through Greater Portland and you’ll find that Cape Elizabeth, Falmouth, South Portland, Saco and Yarmouth also use the phrase “moral turpitude” as their threshold for removal from office.
So back to the question at hand: Is drunken driving an act of “moral turpitude,” reflecting a flaw in one’s character? Or is it simply an episode of poor judgment?
Put another way, have you ever operated a motor vehicle with a drink or three coursing through your bloodstream? And if so, did you consider it a “grave violation” of your community’s standards?
While you’re grappling with that one, let’s imagine two elected officials: One gets caught driving drunk, while the other is arrested after stealing $900 in cash from his fellow councilor’s purse after she steps out to use the ladies’ room.
Here in Maine, operating under the influence is a Class D crime punishable by up to 364 days behind bars and a maximum fine of $2,000.
Theft of property valued at less than $1,000, on the other hand, constitutes a Class E crime punishable by up to six months in the slammer and a fine not to exceed $1,000.
Gorham’s ballot question, scheduled for a public hearing on Sept. 2, asks whether the “moral turpitude” clause should be defined to include Class A,B,C and D crimes, along with the stand-alone crime of murder.
In other words, if it passes, convicted drunken drivers automatically would be sent packing.
But what about that thief, who, in the eyes of the law, committed a lesser, Class E crime? If secretly plundering your seat mate’s purse isn’t an act of moral turpitude, then what is?
Contacted Thursday, Gorham Town Attorney William Dale said the more he’s mulled the town’s “moral turpitude” clause, the more conflicted it’s left him.
Maine has no case law on the issue, Dale said. But the federal courts have ruled numerous times on the meaning of the phrase – mostly in immigration cases where the issue is whether or not to deport a non-citizen for this or that criminal conviction.
In any such case, Dale said, “there are likely going to be aggravating or mitigating circumstances. And I think you have to take those into account.”
That’s why Dale now favors leaving Gorham’s moral turpitude clause as it is – deliberately vague and flexible enough to weigh the details surrounding each bad act.
Beyond that, he said, a better solution might be to take punishment for illegal behavior out of the council’s hands altogether and give it back to the voters who elected the drunken driver, the thief or whomever in the first place.
Gorham, for the record, just did that, too. A first-ever recall ordinance, passed unanimously by the council on July 1, took effect on Thursday.
Which brings us back to Hartwell, who said he’s received widespread encouragement to stay put and intends to do so.
He’s 34, served a tour in Iraq with the Maine Army National Guard and, in addition to this week’s guilty plea, has publicly apologized for “bringing this negative attention” upon his community.
He’s also purchased a battery-operated breath tester that leaves no doubt when it’s OK to drive – and when it isn’t. He’s even tried the device out on his friends.
“I think it can be very enlightening,” Hartwell said “Most people don’t have a clue, after they’ve had a few drinks, what (their blood-alcohol level) might be.”
This fall’s referendum won’t affect Hartwell, who blames no one but himself for what happened. If approved, the new language would only apply to councilors going forward.
Still, a moment of truth awaits any voter in Gorham who’s ever gotten behind the wheel after downing more booze than the law allows:
You know, deep down, that you drank too much.
But how high was your “moral turpitude?”