A Maine judge agreed on Friday to temporarily lower the fine for first-time offenders who run afoul of the state’s new law requiring drivers to put down their phones when behind the wheel.

The move brings the fine down to a base rate of $50 from $170, or more than triple what lawmakers believed they were imposing when the Maine Legislature adjourned three months ago. The law contained imprecise language that set the first offense at a minimum of $50, instead of requiring that exact amount.

The six-month delay gives legislators time to correct the error during the next legislative session. If legislators fail to act, the base fine amount will increase to about $170 on April 6, 2020. With fees, a first offense would cost $230.

With fees, the first ticket will now cost drivers $85, and applies to anyone who decides not to challenge the ticket in court. Drivers who challenge the violations in court could face higher or lower penalties, as deemed appropriate by a trial judge and in line with the statute.

By law, the state’s Chief District Court Judge, Suan Oram, has authority to set the base violation rate for traffic infractions that do not contain a precise required amount in statute. Although lawmakers believed their language specified $50, the true wording, “of not less than $50,” opened the fine to interpretation.

Sen. William Diamond (D-Windham), who sponsored the legislation, was taken aback by the $230 figure and lobbied the judiciary this week to change the fee in line with his legislative intent. Diamond spoke Thursday with Chief Justice Leigh I. Saufley, and he was optimistic a fix would come soon.

“I am proud of the quick action of the Trial Court Chief in addressing the confusion over fines related to this recent legislation,” Saufley said in a statement. “I thank Sen. Diamond for helping to assure that, with regard to legislative matters that may have an impact on the public, the lines of communication among the branches of government remain strong.”

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