The new district attorney has changed the iron-clad, no-deal policy for drunken driving charges in Kennebec County that’s been in place since 1976.
A pilot program, launched last week, gives first-time offenders in Kennebec County a chance to avoid a conviction for operating under the influence, but they’ll have to work hard to do it under the guidelines set by District Attorney Maeghan Maloney, who took office last month.
Those charged have to undergo substance abuse evaluation and treatment if recommended, refrain from using or possessing alcohol for a year, do community service, pay a monthly supervision fee and refrain from new criminal conduct.
“This is giving someone a chance,” Maloney said. “It has to be more difficult than just pleading guilty to an OUI. Essentially, it forces someone to have treatment.”
The people considered for the diversion program must have a clean criminal record, a blood alcohol content of less than 0.12 percent recorded during the incident and no aggravating factors in the traffic stop.
“No accident, no kids in the car, no dangerous driving,” Maloney said.
She also said that if people are unable to afford alcohol treatment programs, she would accept proof that they had attended Alcoholics Anonymous meetings for a year.
The pilot program is not in effect in Somerset County, said Maloney, even though her prosecutorial district includes both counties. She said she wants to evaluate the success of the diversion program, which is similar to one offered in Portland.
She’s most interested in seeing whether people reoffend.
Kennebec County Sheriff Randall Liberty worked with Maloney on the program.
“I believe this creative, innovative policy better serves the public, reserving those jail bed-days for violent offenders,” Liberty said. “Solely incarcerating people for offenses is not effective as a deterrent.”
Liberty said his focus is having offenders get treatment and give back to the community.
The change in policy was evident at hearings last week in Kennebec County Superior Court. Several people pleaded guilty to drunken driving, and the disposition of the case was postponed, in most cases for a year.
Nathan D. Williams, 27, of Unity, pleaded guilty to operating under the influence and received a 12-month deferred disposition with conditions that ban him from use or possession of alcohol or illegal drugs, and subject him to search for those and a chemical test at the request of a law enforcement officer.
He was ordered to undergo substance abuse evaluation — his attorney, Wayne R. Foote, told the judge Williams was already in the state’s Driver Education and Evaluation Program — complete counseling and provide proof of that every 60 days.
The conditions include performing 40 hours of community service.
Under the agreement between the prosecutor and Foote, If Williams complies with all conditions, he can withdraw his plea next February and plead guilty to the lesser charge of driving to endanger, with an accompanying $575 fine and a 30-day license suspension.
The state program is aimed at reducing “the incidence of injury, disability and fatality that results from alcohol and other drug related motor vehicle crashes, and to reduce the risk of reoffense for OUI,” according to the Office of Sustance Abuse and Mental Health Services.
Kevin James Nadeau, 26, of Winslow, who entered a guilty plea via his attorney, Scott Gardner, to a charge of operating under the influence, was placed under the same conditions as Williams.
In a more unusual arrangement, Kathleen Ruff, 53, of Benton, was placed on a six-month deferred disposition after pleading guilty to operating under the influence and ordered to pay a $25 monthly supervision fee.
If she remains free from criminal problems, she can withdraw her plea and be convicted of driving to endanger, with an agreed-upon sentence of a $700 fine and a 90-day license suspension.
“What she’s doing is she’s avoiding any jail time,” said P.J. Perrino, Ruff’s defense attorney.
Perrino, a former district attorney, said the no-deal policy was instituted in 1976, when now-Justice Joseph Jabar was district attorney.
“Either you try the case or you plead (guilty), because you weren’t going to get any deals,” Perrino said.
He favors the change.
“I think it will benefit people in the long run, both financially or psychologically,” Perrino said.
He said other counties, including Cumberland, have similar programs, so people cited for a first OUI offense can avoid conviction.
Maloney said the pilot program resulted from her talks with judges and attorneys, including defense attorney Walter McKee, who approached her on behalf of an elderly client with no criminal record, who wanted to avoid a drunken-driving conviction.
That case has yet to be handled in court, McKee said on Friday.
McKee, too, is pleased with the change.
“It’s important because it takes into account individual circumstances in a case which before were not taken into account,” McKee said. “The prior policy was that once an OUI was approved for prosecution, the defendant had to either plead guilty or go to trial, no exceptions ever.”
McKee said the conditions generally required of people seeking a deferred disposition are more difficult than the usual penalty for a first-time drunken driving conviction.
“I think what this shows is there will be some flexibility, and with that flexibility will come some restrictions,” he said.
In particular, he cited the ban on use or possession of alcohol and the requirement to access substance abuse treatment.
“That’s pretty major,” McKee said.
Generally, a first-time operating under the influence conviction carries a fine and a 90-day license suspension “but no restrictions in terms of their conduct. Other counties regularly reduce (an OUI charge) to driving to endanger. Arguably it still makes Kennebec County one of the toughest counties for OUI cases,” McKee said.
Under Maine law, the minimum mandatory sentence for a first-time drunken driving offense is a $500 fine and a 90-day license suspension if the BAC is 0.15 percent or less; if it is over that, the sentence includes a 48-hour jail sentence or a 96-hour alternative sentencing program, for which the offender must pay.
The pilot program will not affect administrative action on OUI charges taken by the Bureau of Motor Vehicles, including license suspension.
Betty Adams — 621-5631