Friday, December 13, 2013
Gorham Town Councilor Suzanne Phillips pleaded guilty Friday to driving drunk and it's unclear what, if any, impact the conviction will have on her ability to serve on the council.
Derek Davis / Staff Photographer
Phillips, 36, pleaded guilty to driving under the influence of intoxicants. In exchange, prosecutors dropped a charge of leaving the scene of an accident.
Town councilors contacted Friday said the conviction would not preclude Phillips from serving, and the council could not require her to leave, but she might decide to resign.
The Town Charter does require councilors and school board members to vacate their post immediately if convicted of a crime of "moral turpitude." That term is not defined but it generally refers to more serious crimes involving theft or causing injury to another person.
Phillips was arrested at 1 a.m. on May 4 by Gorham police after she allegedly sideswiped two parked cars on School Street and then drove off, damaging her own car and knocking off the driver's side mirrors of the parked cars.
A witness to the crash followed Phillips and reported her to police, according to a police crash report. It said her blood alcohol content was .11, in excess of the .08 that is the threshold for drunk driving.
Phillips appeared Friday in Cumberland County Unified Criminal Court and pleaded guilty to criminal operating under the influence. She agreed to pay a $600 fine and her driver's license will be suspended for 90 days. She recently started a new job and so will pay $25 a month until the fine is paid off, said her attorney, Amanda Doherty.
Phillips left the courthouse quickly without taking questions. Her attorney said Phillips had no statement to make at the time but would make one at the next Gorham Town Council meeting, which is set for Oct. 2.
Phillips was elected to her first term on the council last November.
Doherty said it was appropriate to drop the charge of leaving the scene of an accident because there were conflicting reports about the incident. She said Phillips swerved to avoid an intoxicated pedestrian, causing the collision. She also said Phillips returned home to get information she needed for reporting the crash, possibly her insurance card, she said.
Councilors' views on the incident were mixed.
"If it were me personally, I'd resign," said Councilor Matthew Robinson. "The problem is you have the label. Are you the councilor that resigned or the councilor who should have resigned?"
Robinson said votes involving the Police Department could be problematic, because she might be perceived as retaliating or trying to mend fences.
"It's not a conflict but sometimes a perceived conflict is even worse than an actual conflict," he said.
Councilor Michael Phinney said he would have preferred that Phillips disclosed the arrest before voting on the police budget and the police union contract. Several councilors were already aware of it, but some -- including Phinney -- were unaware until reading about it in the press, he said. In no case was her vote a deciding factor on either expenditure, he said.
The conviction won't affect her effectiveness as a councilor if she decides to stay, he said. "In the end, I guess it's completely up to her. It's her decision to stay or go, not a council decision."
Councilors said they did not believe the charter language would require Phillips to step down.
The charter, adopted by voters in 1967 and amended several times since, reads: "If a councilman ... shall be convicted of a crime involving moral turpitude, his office shall immediately become vacant."
"I believe moral turpitude wouldn't count for that," said Councilor Philip Gagnon Jr.
"I think if you looked up the definition, it wouldn't even come close," said Councilor Matthew Mattingly. Neither wanted to comment further on the conviction.
Moral turpitude is an archaic term that generally refers to dishonesty, depravity or evil. The U.S. State Department prohibits people from immigrating to the United States if they've been convicted of such a crime and it specifically excludes crimes, including drunk driving.
The town's attorney told the council he did not believe the charter language would apply in this case, Phinney said.
Staff Writer David Hench can be contacted at 791-6327 or at: