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

(Continued from page 3)

Today's poll: Drunk driving penalties

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

Yes

No

View Results

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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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"I think we're going to become a lifetime state; that's certainly the trend," said Boulos.

MADD supports that push, Harris said. "But we see a lot of pushback from states on that."

Scott Gardner, a defense attorney in Biddeford who specializes in drunken driving cases, said a lifetime review is unfair. He cited as an example someone who receives a first conviction as a college student and another 15 years later. That second offense would mean a license suspension of three years.

Gardner said the bigger difference lies not between the first and second offense but between the second and third.

"By the time you get to three, that person is a serious public safety risk," he said. "But for a second offender, the risk is not always the same."

Gardner said Maine's judicial system gives judges plenty of discretion in levying penalties for second-time offenders.

Richard L. Hartley, past president of the Maine Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers, said stripping someone of his license forever is not the solution.

"Certainly there are situations, as a result of people getting killed on Maine's roads, we would say, 'I wish that person's license would have been taken so this didn't happen," he said. But that doesn't take into consideration the broader implications for others if the penalty for first or even second offenses is too severe.

"I can point to many of my clients who have made mistakes in the past and have been punished for those mistakes and who are now living productive lives they wouldn't be able to live if they didn't have a driver's license," Hartley said.

"We live in a rural state where driver's licenses are incredibly important to people working and supporting a family and living a productive life," he said. "If a suspension is reasonable and there's a light at the end of the tunnel, we would hope that person would work to get past it and be productive. If there is no light at the end of the tunnel, that person can be despairing and drive (without a valid license) and have new criminal charges."

In May the National Transportation Safety Board recommended that all 50 states amend their drunken driving laws to lower the blood-alcohol threshold to 0.05 percent.

It could take several years before those standards would be adopted and some industry groups, including the American Beverage Institute, are likely to fight the change. NTSB officials believe it's just a matter of time, however. More than 100 countries already have legal levels of 0.05 percent or lower.

DECLINING RATES

More than 115,000 people have been charged with one drunken driving offense in the state since 1982, the earliest year the state's electronic database tracks. Almost 28,000 have been charged with two OUIs.

Geoffrey Rushlau, district attorney for Lincoln, Knox and Sagadahoc counties and a prosecutor for more than 30 years, said the number of people on the road with multiple OUIs is a concern, but the law seems to be adequate for most offenders.

"Year after year the vast majority of OUI defendants get convicted only once," he said. "(The law) doesn't stop them once but it seems to be effective at stopping them from doing it again."

The number of drunken driving arrests in Maine has been declining in recent years, from 8,029 in 2001 to 6,026 in 2011.

Conviction rates vary from county to county, from 37 percent in York County to 83 percent in Hancock and Penobscot counties over 10 years, an analysis by the Portland Press Herald/ Maine Sunday Telegram found last year.

But a person's right to drive is determined by the Bureau of Motor Vehicles, not a conviction. A defendant can plead to a lesser charge or be found not guilty, and the drunken driving offense will still appear on his driving record because it is an administrative decision, not a criminal sanction.

(Continued on page 5)

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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