March 18, 2010

CRACKS IN THE CRACKDOWNDANGER BEHIND THE WHEEL

KEVIN WACK

— ACCORDING TO THE LAW

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J=so_LaNigra

Shawn Patrick Ouellette

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A glossary of legal definitions related to suspended drivers.

OPERATING AFTER SUSPENSION: USUALLY A MISDEMEANOR, THE MINIMUM FINE IS $250 FOR THE FIRST OFFENSE AND $500 FOR SUBSEQUENT OFFENSES. PENALTIES ARE ENHANCED, WITH A JAIL TERM OF AT LEAST SEVEN DAYS, IF THE MOTORIST'S LICENSE WAS SUSPENDED FOR DRUNKEN DRIVING.

HABITUAL OFFENDER: A CLASSIFICATION FOR DRIVERS WITH 10 OR MORE MOVING VIOLATIONS WITHIN A FIVE-YEAR PERIOD, OR THREE OR MORE SPECIFIED MAJOR CONVICTIONS WITHIN A FIVE-YEAR SPAN. THE LIST OF MAJOR OFFENSES INCLUDES OPERATING AFTER SUSPENSION, AS LONG AS THE SUSPENSION WAS NOT FOR FAILING TO PAY CHILD SUPPORT; OPERATING UNDER THE INFLUENCE; AND ELUDING A POLICE OFFICER. THE MAINE SECRETARY OF STATE'S OFFICE REVOKES HABITUAL OFFENDERS' LICENSES. AFTER THREE YEARS, HABITUAL OFFENDERS ARE ELIGIBLE TO APPLY FOR LICENSE REINSTATEMENT.

OPERATING AFTER REVOCATION: THIS CHARGE, WHICH CAN BE A MISDEMEANOR OR A FELONY, APPLIES TO HABITUAL OFFENDERS WHO GET CAUGHT DRIVING. THE MINIMUM SENTENCE IS 30 DAYS IN JAIL AND A $500 FINE. FOR HABITUAL OFFENDERS WITH THREE OR MORE PRIOR CONVICTIONS, THE MINIMUM PRISON TERM IS TWO YEARS.

AGGRAVATED OPERATING AFTER REVOCATION: THIS CHARGE, WHICH CAN BE A MISDEMEANOR OR A FELONY, APPLIES TO HABITUAL OFFENDERS WHO GET CAUGHT BEHIND THE WHEEL WHILE AT THE SAME TIME COMMITTING ANOTHER MAJOR OFFENSE, SUCH AS OPERATING UNDER THE INFLUENCE. THE MINIMUM PRISON TERM IS SIX MONTHS. FOR REPEAT OFFENDERS, PRISON SENTENCES CAN RANGE UP TO FIVE YEARS.

CAUSING SERIOUS BODILY INJURY OR DEATH WHILE LICENSE IS SUSPENDED OR REVOKED: ALWAYS A FELONY, THIS CHARGE CAN BE BROUGHT AGAINST PEOPLE WHO KNOWINGLY DRIVE WITH A SUSPENDED OR REVOKED LICENSE AND KILL OR SERIOUSLY INJURE SOMEONE. THE LAW ESTABLISHES MAXIMUM SENTENCES OF 10 YEARS IN PRISON IF THE DEFENDANT CAUSED A DEATH AND FIVE YEARS IN PRISON IF THE DEFENDANT CAUSED A SERIOUS INJURY.

By

Staff Writer

Alton E. Grover Jr. fits the profile that Maine lawmakers were targeting when they set out in 2006 to crack down on people driving with a suspended license.

Grover, 58, has accumulated at least 36 traffic-related convictions over the past three decades. He's been on drugs while behind the wheel, driven recklessly and, since 1998, caused at least two crashes in which someone was hurt, records show.

In 2006, Grover's driving problems intensified. That February he was convicted of operating under the influence. In May he was convicted of driving while his license was suspended. And in August he was convicted of driving without a license and was sentenced to 48 hours in jail.

Those three convictions made Grover a ''habitual offender,'' a license status that meant Grover would face stiffer penalties if he were pulled over again by police. But because of paperwork delays in the court system and at the Maine Bureau of Motor Vehicles, more than five months passed before the state officially reclassified Grover as a habitual offender.

In the meantime, Grover was arrested, again, for driving with a suspended license. Had the state moved more quickly, Grover would have received a minimum sentence of six months in jail under ''Tina's Law,'' the 2006 overhaul of Maine's traffic statutes. Instead, he got a five-day jail term.

Tina's Law was passed with great fanfare. Legislators said the law would send a strong message to the state's worst driving offenders: Ignore the rules of the road, and you will pay dearly.

But as Grover's case shows, it's one thing to pass a law, and something else to enforce it effectively. And for years in Maine, bureaucratic glitches behind the scenes have diminished the effectiveness of the state's safe-driving laws.

In one wide-scale example that happened just as lawmakers were crafting Tina's Law, the state issued tens of thousands fewer license suspensions than it should have because of problems with the computer system at the judicial branch's Violations Bureau. The problems cascaded through the criminal justice system, resulting in thousands fewer prosecutions of suspended drivers in 2005 and 2006.

In Grover's case, an official at the Maine Bureau of Motor Vehicles said a staffing shortage may have contributed to the delay in classifying him as a habitual offender. And Secretary of State Mathew Dunlap, whose office oversees the motor vehicle bureau, said he believes the Grover case was an isolated incident.

Yet the delay alarmed lawmakers who helped write Tina's Law, and who see the Grover case as exactly the type of problem the law was supposed to address.

''Obviously, that beats the intent of Tina's Law,'' said Rep. Richard Sykes, R-Harrison, who served on the legislative committee that helped craft the law. ''And it sounds like the system failed at that particular point.''

Grover's last known address was at a motel in Raymond. Repeated attempts to contact him through family members were unsuccessful.

Grover's driving history and the state's handling of his case worry Pat and Bob LaNigra, mother and stepfather of Tina Turcotte, the late Scarborough woman for whom Tina's Law is named.

''Our main concern is, the law is only as good as how well it's enforced,'' Bob LaNigra said.

TARGETING 'WORST OF THE WORST'

Turcotte, 40, was on her way to Bangor on July 29, 2005, when, as traffic slowed to merge on the Maine Turnpike in Hallowell, a tractor-trailer slammed into her car from behind. She died from her injuries two days later.

Turcotte's death sparked outrage. Scott Hewitt, the tractor-trailer operator, had 63 prior driving convictions, and his license to drive was suspended.

In 2006, the Maine Legislature responded by enacting Tina's Law. Politically, the law was a compromise between legislators who favored tougher penalties for suspended drivers and others who were wary of requiring judges to impose lengthy minimum sentences.

The result was a law that established tougher sentences, but only for a group of chronic suspended drivers dubbed ''the worst of the worst.''

Tina's Law requires a minimum $500 fine and 30 days in jail for habitual offenders -- a license classification that includes people convicted three times in five years for such violations as driving after suspension and drunken driving. The law also mandates more time behind bars for habitual offenders who commit certain crimes, such as drunken driving or driving to endanger.

Drivers whose licenses are suspended may also be sentenced to up to five years in prison for being involved in a crash that results in serious bodily injury, and up to 10 years in prison for being involved in a fatal crash.

Supporters of Tina's Law say it sends a message to the most reckless drivers that their behavior will no longer be tolerated.

''They're not getting a slap on the wrist anymore,'' said Kennebec County District Attorney Evert Fowle. ''You won't have any deterrent effect unless people know they're going to prison.''

IMPACT OF TINA'S LAW UNCLEAR

Statistics available since the law took effect on Aug. 23, 2006, offer little insight into how well it is working toward its stated goal of deterring suspended drivers.

The Maine State Police reported a record 3,305 arrests for driving with a suspended license in 2007, up from 2,044 such arrests during the previous year. Those numbers do not include arrests by local police departments.

Court records, meanwhile, show that from July 2006 to June 2007, 11,475 people were prosecuted in Maine for driving with a suspended or revoked license. That's around the same number as in all other recent years except July 2005-June 2006, when computer problems led to fewer prosecutions.

It's hard to draw conclusions from these statistics, since an overall rise in arrests or prosecutions could mean that more people are driving with a suspended license, but it might also simply be a reflection of stepped-up enforcement efforts.

But some officials are skeptical about whether Tina's Law will keep suspended drivers off the road. Cumberland County Sheriff Mark Dion said he believes jail alone is unlikely to change the driving behavior of chronic offenders. Except for the motorists who have killed or seriously injured someone, almost everyone convicted under Tina's Law will be out of prison in two years or less.

''I don't mind getting tough,'' said Dion, who suggested using global-positioning systems to track suspended drivers, an idea that the Legislature did not embrace. ''But I think we've got to get smart about getting tough.''

Michael Povich, district attorney for Hancock and Washington counties, agreed that a legislatively mandated prison term is not always the best outcome. He said that in cases where the defendant needed drug or alcohol treatment rather than jail, he has used what is known as a negotiated plea to avoid the mandatory sentences established by Tina's Law.

''Prosecutors can find a way to get around the mandatory sentences,'' he said. ''And it's to achieve justice.''

Since their daughter's death, the LaNigras have been regular readers of the newspaper's weekly police blotter. They've been heartened to see more arrests of suspended drivers, which they see as a sign of tighter enforcement.

But they remain disappointed that some of the original bill's tougher provisions, such as requiring prison time for people convicted of driving while their licenses are under multiple suspensions, failed to make it into law.

After pleading guilty to manslaughter, Scott Hewitt, the truck driver who struck Turcotte's car, was sentenced to 2½ years in prison. His license was permanently revoked, though he is eligible for reinstatement after 10 years. If Tina's Law had already been enacted at the time of the crash, Hewitt would have been eligible for up to 10 years in prison.

In an interview before his Dec. 8, 2007, release from the Two Bridges Regional Jail in Wiscasset, Hewitt insisted that he never got the original notice that his license was suspended before the crash that fatally injured Turcotte. He alternated between statements aimed at minimizing his culpability for Turcotte's death and expressions of remorse.

''I hurt inside because of this. I got to deal with this the rest of my life,'' he said.

Hewitt, who was arrested for driving without a license just eight days after he crashed into Turcotte's car, will get little sympathy from Pat LaNigra.

''This man killed an innocent girl that we'll never see the rest of our life,'' she said as tears welled up in her eyes. ''He's got every opportunity to continue. Our lives have been crushed.''

OFFENDER NOTIFICATIONS DELAYED

Following Alton Grover's Aug. 3, 2006, conviction for driving without a license, state records show that seven weeks passed before the paperwork from the court system arrived at the Bureau of Motor Vehicles. Fourteen weeks after that -- on Jan. 2, 2007 -- the bureau finally entered the conviction into its computer system. That initiated a process, which took about three weeks, of informing Grover by mail that he was a habitual offender, and then updating his license status.

The process was still ongoing on Jan. 16, 2007, when Grover was arrested by the Cumberland County Sheriff's Department and charged -- again -- with driving with a suspended license.

Because Grover had not yet been officially classified as a habitual offender, prosecutors were unable to charge him under Tina's Law, leading to his five-day jail term.

When asked about Grover's driving record, the Maine Bureau of Motor Vehicles, which is responsible for the administrative enforcement of the state's driving laws, initially said that Grover did not have enough convictions in 2006 to be classified as a habitual offender.

But after the Press Herald presented the BMV with records of Grover's convictions, the bureau acknowledged the delay in recording his Aug. 3 conviction. Robert O'Connell, the bureau's director of driver's license services, said a staffing shortage might have contributed to the holdup, but he was unable to provide specifics.

It is unclear how often this kind of glitch occurs. O'Connell said that it normally takes one to two weeks for the BMV to record a conviction once the paperwork arrives from the courts.

Secretary of State Matthew Dunlap, whose department includes the BMV, described Grover's case as an isolated incident. He said he based that assessment on the BMV's implementation of new methods for flagging backlogs, though he also acknowledged that officials have not looked at other specific cases to see how well the system worked in those instances.

''We've resolved our backlog issues,'' Dunlap said. ''A lot of them were systemic.''

Still, the delay in Grover's case worries some lawmakers. ''It raises concerns that the Secretary of State's Office isn't willing or able to do their job,'' said Rep. Stan Gerzofsky, D-Brunswick, the House chairman of the Criminal Justice Committee.

Sen. Bill Diamond, D-Windham, the committee's Senate chairman, said he would like to know whether the delay was an isolated incident or part of a larger trend.

''Sometimes these things are little red flags that we need to follow through on,'' said Diamond, who served as Maine's secretary of state from 1989 to 1997.

OUTDATED SYSTEMS CAUSE PROBLEMS

For most of the last decade, the Bureau of Motor Vehicles has been plagued by computer problems. In 2001, the state signed an $11.4 million contract with a private contractor to modernize the bureau's 1960s-era mainframe computer. The project was supposed to be finished in 18 months. Six years and an additional $7 million later, the project is still about a year and a half away from completion.

One problem with the bureau's old computer system is that it is unable to search by anything other than a particular driver's name, which has hindered the ability of police to gather useful information about specific groups of motorists, such as those with suspended licenses.

Law-enforcement officials said the situation has improved recently, as the BMV's new computer system is rolled out in stages.

In late 2005, the BMV unveiled a new system for police that identified 100 of the state's worst drivers. Today, that system has been replaced by an online service that police agencies can use to identify the suspended drivers within their jurisdictions.

But some problems have persisted, and they are not always the BMV's fault.

In one example from 2004, it took the state court system more than seven months to notify the bureau that Travis Nadeau of Gorham had been convicted of aggravated drunken driving and manslaughter.

''Something happened there that is way out of whack, no doubt about it,'' said Rick Record, who supervises court clerks around Maine.

Fortunately, public safety was not compromised in that case because Nadeau was behind bars during the delay.

A far more widespread glitch hindered traffic enforcement during much of 2005 and 2006. Inside the judicial branch's Violations Bureau, the transition to a new computer system sharply reduced the number of license suspensions issued over a 19-month period, said Ted Glessner, the state court system's top administrator.

He explained that when someone failed to pay a court fine during this period, the Bureau of Motor Vehicles wasn't always notified promptly that the driver's license should be suspended, because the computer transition caused a backlog of work at the Violations Bureau.

''The bottom line is from a productivity point of view, this transition really set us back,'' Glessner said. ''And as a result, some of the work didn't get done in as timely a manner as it would have.''

The Violations Bureau's computer problems set off a domino effect in Maine's law-enforcement system during parts of 2005 and 2006. Statewide, the number of license suspensions plummeted from more than 86,000 in 2004 to less than 48,000 in 2005, according to statistics from the Bureau of Motor Vehicles. Suspensions rebounded to 75,570 in 2006.

Because fewer licenses were suspended promptly, fewer people got charged with driving with a suspended license during this period, according to Glessner.

Statewide, there were 12,167 prosecutions of suspended drivers from July 2004 to June 2005, but the number of cases filed during the following 12-month period fell to 8,974, before rebounding to 11,475 from July 2006 to June 2007.

Glessner said in a recent interview that the Violations Bureau's problems are now resolved.

But one continuing problem, state officials say, is inefficiency in how information is sent from the courts to the BMV. When someone is convicted of a minor traffic violation, such as speeding, that information is sent by computer. But in cases involving more serious misdemeanor and felony violations, such as Grover's case, the agencies still rely on paper sent by mail, which can end up languishing on someone's desk.

''It seems like it should be the reverse,'' said Sykes, the Harrison legislator. ''You take your time with the routine traffic, and when you flag someone, you make it a priority.''

Staff Writer Kevin Wack can be contacted at 791-6365 or at:

kwack@pressherald.com

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Additional Photos

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Staff Photo by Doug Jones, Friday, January 7, 2005: Kevin Wack, a pure manifestation of insightful, probing, supertalent

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7/29/05 File Staff photo by Joe Phelan Traffic is backed up for miles behind the scene of an accident on Friday morning in the northbound side of Interstate 95 in Hallowell. A red tow truck sits in front of a the car and tractor trailer involved in the collision.

AP

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John Patriquin/Staff Photographer; Friday, January,18,2008. Studio shot of Jeff Woodbury.

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Jack Milton/Staff Photographer: Friday, January 18, 2008: Suzi Piker, for drivers series.

Jack Milton

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Staff Photo by John Ewing: 20070306 Tuesday, March 6, 2007....Andrew Russell, for column logo.

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