August 20, 2013

How safe are you on the road?

With the potential for so many repeat OUI offenders getting behind the wheel again, the question arises: Why doesn't Maine have a provision to revoke driving privileges for good?

By David Hench dhench@pressherald.com
Staff Writer

and Eric Russell erussell@pressherald.com
Staff Writer

When David Labonte was charged with driving drunk into a family of cyclists early this month in Biddeford, people were shocked to learn he had been convicted of drunken driving four times already.

Today's poll: Drunk driving penalties

Should Maine have tougher penalties for people with multiple drunk driving convictions?

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A sign warns motorists of a sobriety checkpoint on Route 1 in Brunswick.

Photos by Carl D. Walsh/Staff Photographer

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Drunken driving offenses in Maine
 
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They shouldn't have been.

An analysis by the Maine Sunday Telegram has found that more than 5,000 people who have been stopped four or more times for drunken driving may still be getting behind the wheel. That number jumps to almost 15,000 for people who have at least three prior cases of operating under the influence, or OUI.

"Without question, it's cause for concern," said Portland Police Chief Michael Sauschuck. "When you see somebody who has multiple OUI offenses, it's a ticking time bomb. They're behind the wheel of a dangerous weapon."

The state can't say exactly how many repeat offenders are still on the road. The Bureau of Motor Vehicles electronic database goes back to 1982. Some of those drivers may have died, given up driving or left the state.

However, many are like Labonte, whose convictions were spread out over decades, enabling repeat offenders to get their license back and drive legally again.

Maine has no provision to permanently revoke a motorist's driving privileges, regardless of how many drunken driving convictions a person may have. Only New York state has such a provision; it revokes driving privileges permanently after five OUIs

Experts say permanently revoking someone's license would do little to lower the number of people who repeatedly drive drunk. The only way to do that is to physically stop them from starting a car, through an ignition interlock system. Maine will increase its use of the systems starting Dec. 1, and they are being used in more states as legislators look for ways to reduce drunken driving.

Years ago, Maine led most states in instituting aggressive drunken driving laws, but other states have caught up and in some cases surpassed Maine.

Some states now have started looking at a person's entire driving history to assess how dangerous that driver is on the road. Maine's Bureau of Motor Vehicles, by contrast, considers only the previous 10 years in determining how long a person's license should be suspended.

Maine legislators and public safety officials say the data suggest the state should at least study existing laws to determine whether changes should be made.

"The tragedy in Biddeford again reopened the eyes of many people in terms of the reissuing of driving licenses to those convicted of multiple infractions of OUI," said Rep. Alan Casavant, D-Biddeford, a member of the Legislature's Criminal Justice and Public Safety Committee.

"I think that most people would agree that multiple offenses raise a huge red flag in terms of driving habits and addiction. The Legislature might have to re-examine the issue and be willing to create greater penalties in terms of driving."

State records show that 819 drivers have three or more drunken driving license suspensions within the past 10 years. In court, a third OUI within 10 years is a felony. If the third offense occurs more than 10 years after the first, then it's a misdemeanor.

HABITUAL OFFENDERS

Labonte was first arrested for OUI in 1983 when he was 25. He was caught again in 1988 and deemed a habitual offender. His license was suspended until 1990. For two years, he could only use it to get to and from work.

He was pulled over for OUI again in 2005, when he was 48 years old.

From the state's perspective, it was his first offense, since the third OUI was the only one that fell in the 10-year review period. He received a suspended sentence and a $600 fine. His license was suspended for three months.

(Continued on page 2)

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Additional Photos

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A motorist walks a line while being assessed for sobriety at a checkpoint set up Friday on Route 1 in Brunswick by Cumberland County police assigned to the Regional Impaired Driving Enforcement, or RIDE, team. Maine records going back to 1982 show that nearly 15,000 people have at least three prior cases of operating under the influence.

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Brunswick Police Officer John Roma and other Cumberland County officers conduct sobriety checks Friday.

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Cumberland Police Officer Ryan Martin, below, conducts a field sobriety test Friday.

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Police cuff a drunken driving suspect.

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Today's poll: Drunk driving penalties

Should Maine have tougher penalties for people with multiple drunk driving convictions?

Yes

No

View Results