Maine State Police Trooper Anthony Keim patrols the Maine Turnpike in Scarborough on Thursday looking for drivers holding cellphones on the first day of Maine’s new hands-free driving law. Gregory Rec/Staff Photographer Buy this Photo

The chief justice of the Maine Supreme Judicial Court is reviewing the fine amount for motorists who violate the state’s new cellphone driving prohibition, taking the step because of a legislative error that led to a dramatically increased cost.

Sen. William Diamond, D-Windham, spoke with Chief Justice Leigh I. Saufley about the hands-free law on Thursday, the day the statute took effect. Diamond, who sponsored the bill, said he and other legislators intended the new law to include a relatively inexpensive $50 base fine for first-time offenders, or $85 total with judicial fees. But because of imprecise language, the fine is defined as “no less than $50,” opening it to interpretation by a judge.

The chief judge of the Maine District Courts, Susan Oram, has the authority to set the base fine for any traffic violation without a precise, predetermined fee. In this case, Oram set the first-offense fine for violating the cellphone prohibition at $170, or more than triple what Diamond intended. With fees included, anyone who chooses to waive his or her right to a trial and pay without a court challenge will owe $230.

Oram set the amount for second and subsequent offenses at a base fine of $250 – in line with Diamond’s intent – and $75 in fees, for a total cost of $325.

Diamond said his conversation with Saufley was productive, and she assured him that the courts will review the amounts to reconcile any confusion between the two branches of government.

“She’s going to look at it very carefully and get back to me in a couple of days,” Diamond said Thursday afternoon following the conversation. “I had a chance to explain to her what we thought (the fine) would be and what the legislative intent was. She was very open.”

A request for an interview with Saufley was not returned Thursday.

When Diamond first learned about the legislative error on Wednesday, he said he was willing to file emergency legislation in the upcoming short session of the Legislature. On Thursday, he was hopeful that such a step would be unnecessary. Diamond said in a statement that Saufley sought to ensure that there was no confusion between the legislative and judicial branches.

“I’d love to get this resolved right, and quick,” Diamond said.

The surprise increase came after Diamond and others relied on the $50 figure in promoting the bill to the public since its passage.

Doubt over whether the increased amount would stand in the long term led at least one police department to issue only warnings during the first day of enforcement.

Augusta Police Chief Jared Mills said he learned of the increased fine amount on Thursday morning as his officers were preparing to enforce the measure, and issued a directive to write only warnings, he said.

“It was an order to all staff to just write warnings until we can square this away,” Mills said. “It’s one of those situations where we don’t want to write the wrong fine amount and then have the ticket kicked back. I wanted to let the dust settle.”

In other police departments, violations were few and far between on the first day of the new law, which prohibits the use of handheld cellular phones or electronic devices while driving.

Police in South Portland were stopping motorists found with phones in hand, but it was unclear if police wrote any summonses, Sgt. Paul Lambert said.

“There have been several stops,” Lambert said. “I made a few myself, but I didn’t write any tickets. Discretion is always an important thing. You can’t just hammer everybody, you have to be a little human about it.”

Maine State Police Trooper Anthony Keim found that motorists along Interstate 95 on Thursday morning apparently got the message from police social media posts, news stories and the flashing messages on electronic sign boards that dot the interstate. During three hours of patrol during the morning rush hour, Keim found no motorists in violation.

Keim, a 30-year police veteran who has spent the last 21 years with the Maine State Police, said that the fine amount was a surprise to him, as well, but the cost of a the ticket will not deter him from writing violations. The law is the law, he said. Any quibbles should be directed to the Legislature. The law is a step forward for public safety and toward preventing injuries and death, he said.

“I’ve worked out here long enough,” Keim said. “I’ve seen enough crashes and carnage.”

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