A Superior Court judge has ruled that a former Skowhegan man convicted in a drunken driving crash in 1996 that killed three people and severely injured two others should be allowed to apply for driver’s license reinstatement, despite a lifetime ban imposed as part of the man’s sentence.

The ruling highlights an apparent contradiction in Maine state law: someone’s driver’s license can be “permanently” revoked but there’s also a way for that person to petition for getting re-licensed a decade after leaving prison.

A state motor vehicles examiner in October denied a request for license reinstatement by Bryan Carrier, 39, of Fairfield, calling the crash “criminal homicide.” It was the third time Carrier had sought to get his right to drive back after it was suspended for life when he was sentenced in 1997.

A Bureau of Motor Vehicles hearing officer heard Carrier’s plea for reinstatement in September, when he said through his lawyer, Walt McKee, that he needed to drive to work and run errands and visit family. The hearing officer, Benjamin Tucker, agreed with the earlier court ruling banning him for life, noting that Carrier had not made any “meaningful attempt to console or apologize directly for (the) immense pain and grief” he had caused until the September reinstatement hearing.

Tucker also wrote in his decision dated Oct. 13 that Facebook messages by Carrier in 2015 “indicate a level of callousness about their impact on family members.”

But Justice William Stokes ruled last week in Kennebec County Superior Court that Tucker did not have the “statutory authority” to decide that Carrier could never file another petition for driver’s license reinstatement. He noted that state law does, in fact, permit re-application for re-licensure.

McKee said Stokes’ decision came as no surprise.

“Justice Stokes is a by-the-book judge and this is a by-the-book decision,” he said.

But family and friends of the crash victims have said they took the original court order of a lifetime ban at its face value — life is life, they said in September.

“When he took this deal, it was for life on the license and that was it,” Royce Jewell, 65, of Canaan, whose wife, Arlyce Jewell, 42, and their 10-year-old son, Alex, died in the crash, said in September. Jewell was injured in the crash on Nov. 22, 1996, that also resulted in the death of Elbert Knowles, who was 15. Also injured was Nicole Johnson, 17, of Skowhegan.

“I didn’t agree with that at the time, and I never got to face that man. Look at me, boy,” Jewell said during the September hearing that turned heated, pointing across the hearing table at Carrier. “I never got to talk the last time — 20 years ago. I want this (expletive) over with.”

Carrier, who was 19 years old at the time of the accident, drove a pickup truck at high speed through a stop sign on East Ridge Road in Skowhegan and slammed into a van that was heading east on U.S. Route 2. He pleaded guilty in 1997 in Somerset County Superior Court to three counts of manslaughter and three counts of aggravated operating under the influence. Carrier’s blood-alcohol level after the crash was 0.11, over the legal limit of 0.08.

He was sentenced to 10 years in prison with all but two years suspended, six years of probation and 2,000 hours of community service on the manslaughter conviction. On the OUI charge, Carrier was sentenced to two years in prison to run at the same time as the manslaughter sentence and ordered to pay $6,000 in fines.

In addition, his driver’s license was suspended for life. He was released on March 30, 1999, from the Charleston Correctional Facility.

“My statement is he’s not driving no more — life is life. That’s what he was told by the judge,” Jewell said.

But state law says otherwise, Stokes ruled.

Stokes said in the order dated May 18, that if the Legislature intended to limit the number of times someone could petition for reinstatement, it would have done so. He said Tucker, the hearing officer, “exceeded his authority by essentially banning the petitioner from ever applying for reinstatement of a license under the statute.”

He added that Tucker, the hearing officer, “committed error of law in imposing such a ban in the absence of legislative authority.”

Stokes is well known for another ruling that followed a close reading of state law: the case of Harvey Lembo, a disabled lobsterman living in Rockland who was told by his landlord to give up his gun or face eviction after he shot an intruder. Stokes ruled that “a notice that a landlord intends to enforce a lease provision by seeking eviction through a court action” was not a threat within the “contemplation of the Maine Civil Rights Act,” which was the basis of a lawsuit Lembo had filed against his landlord for violating his Second Amendment rights.

That case led to a state law that placed limits on what landlords could regulate when it comes to possession of firearms in rental units.

Neither Jewell nor his daughter with Arlyce, Tracey Rotondi of Athens, could be reached for comment Monday on Stokes’ ruling. Tucker did not immediately respond to an email requesting comment on the ruling.

McKee said Monday that he only appealed the part of the decision that determined that Carrier could never seek reinstatement again. He said that while he was not surprised that the family may have misunderstood the statute as it applies to reinstatement and a lifetime suspension under Maine law, he was surprised by the hearing examiner’s decision.

“We are very pleased with this decision,” McKee said Monday. “We said all along that we could accept the hearing officer’s decision as it related to reinstatement, though we didn’t agree with it. But a lifetime ban on any further requests was just not allowed under Maine law and the judge agreed. This was the sole basis of the appeal.

“I am confident that at some point in the future Bryan will seek reinstatement. When that day will be, we don’t know at this point.”

A total of 115,607 drivers have been convicted only once of driving drunk, according to state records on OUI convictions, which date to 1980 and include out-of-state drivers who offended in Maine. More than 16,000 drivers have had four or more drunken driving convictions since 1980, and one driver has been convicted of OUI 18 times, an analysis by the Maine Sunday Telegram found.

Maine, like the vast majority of states, does not permanently revoke driver’s licenses — no matter how many OUI convictions a driver has on his or her record — except in cases where a fatality is involved and the person was under the influence of intoxicants.

There is no indication from published accounts at the time that Carrier had any previous drunk-driving convictions.