Tina’s Law, named for a Scarborough woman who was killed last year after her car was hit by a trucker with more than 20 license suspensions, went into effect Wednesday, Aug. 23, meaning suspended drivers caught behind the wheel could face jail time.

The hope is the new law will make suspended drivers think twice before they drive.

It sets fines of $500 to $3,000 and jail time of 30 days and up to five years for those who commit a driving offense while operating a vehicle after suspension.

It creates a new crime for habitual offenders who drive with a suspended license and are caught driving under the influence, driving to endanger or trying to elude police. They could go to jail for up to five years. Unlicensed drivers involved in a fatality can face 10 years behind bars.

“If this law had been in place on July 29 of last year, my daughter Tina would be here with us today,” said Pat LaNigra, Tina Turcotte’s mother, at a press conference Wednesday in Augusta.

Turcotte, age 40, was driving on the Maine Turnpike last summer when her car was hit by a tractor-trailer truck being driven by Scott Hewitt. Hewitt of Caribou was driving with a suspended license and had more than 60 violations on his record.

Rep. Darlene Curley, R-Scarborough, who worked with the family to get the law passed and wanted even tougher sentences, said passage of the law was an important first step.

“Nothing will take away that grief,” she said, but it will start to make things better on the highway. “Nobody should have to look out the window and wonder whether the person next to them is a suspended driver.”

The effectiveness of the new law is up to the courts, said Cumberland County Sheriff Mark Dion, because they will be the ones deciding the severity of the sentences.

Too often driving while suspended has been seen as “an administrative violation, a low level offense,” Dion said.

“Tomorrow we will begin to see if the judiciary has heard the people’s will,” he said. “Will they carry out the sanctions that the district attorneys of Maine have asked for?”

Dion, whose office has been holding stings of sorts to arrest people driving while suspended, estimates that one in 25 drivers on the road today are driving without a valid license because of past vehicle-related offenses.

Sen. Bill Diamond, D-Cumberland County, who co-sponsored the legislation with Curley, said, “It’s a darn shame that it took the loss of an innocent life to expose the weakness in our system.”

Diamond, chairman of the Criminal Justice and Public Safety Committee, which wrote the final language for the law, recalled the bill was passed unanimously in the Legislature.

“I hope five years from now people don’t forget that,” Diamond said, and try to amend it because of rising jail costs or pressure from interest groups.

Col. Craig Poulin, chief of the State Police, said his hope is the threat of jail time will stop suspended drivers from getting behind the wheel and hurting someone else.

“We’ve got to send a message…that it’s a new day when they find themselves in front of the courts,” Poulin said. “The idea is to get people to not test the law because it’s too late then.”

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