Drivers with a history of being drunk behind the wheel could face longer sentences thanks to a bill passed by the Legislature this week.
The bill, L.D. 1729, allows prosecutors and judges to consider felony operating under the influence convictions during the lifetime of the offender, rather than being limited to the last 10 years.
“It will affect a small group of people, but they’re the people that are the most dangerous,” said Geoffrey Rushlau, district attorney for four counties, including Lincoln and Sagadahoc.
The bill’s chief sponsor, Rep Timothy Marks, D-Pittston, a retired state police trooper, said it will help keep the most dangerous drivers off the road.
“It’s making it just a little bit tougher for repeat offenders, which are our biggest problem,” Marks said.
The bill has been sent to Gov. Paul LePage for signature. Spokesmen from his office did not return messages that sought to determine whether the governor would sign the bill. If he does sign it or if it goes into law without his signature, the law will take effect in 90 days.
The law currently considers anyone convicted of drunken driving as a first-time offender if any previous drunken-driving convictions occurred more than 10 years ago. Marks’ original proposal would have extended that “look back” period from 10 to 15 years for all drunken-driving charges.
“I didn’t get everything I wanted in this bill, but it’s a start,” Marks said. “The repeat offenders is what it’s going to capture.”
The amended version approved by the Legislature only removes the 10-year limit on drivers with prior felony drunken-driving convictions, which include drunken-driving crashes that led to serious injury or death or anyone convicted of three or more OUI charges over a 10-year period. Under the Legislature’s proposal, anyone with a felony drunken-driving conviction would face a new felony drunken-driving charge for subsequent drunken-driving offenses for the rest of his or her life.
The difference is a potentially much more significant prison sentence. Right now, a drunken driver convicted of felony drunken driving more than 10 years ago is charged with a misdemeanor, which has a cap of 364 days in jail. Under the Legislature’s proposal, a drunken driver with a previous felony drunken-driving conviction at any point in his or her life would be charged with a felony OUI charge, which carries a potential five-year prison sentence.
“There’s a substantial difference in license suspension as well,” Rushlau said.
Rushlau, who supports the change, said the Legislature attempted to make the change a number of years ago, but the Maine Supreme Judicial Court rejected the law because it was too ambiguous. The new law, he said, clearly defines the Legislature’s intention.
“I believe this clarifies what the Legislature has already attempted to do,” Rushlau said. “To me, it’s more of a clarification than anything else.”
Augusta police Lt. Christopher Massey said the change will have no effect on the way police do their jobs.
“At our level, the legal limit is still 0.08,” Massey said. “Our probable cause is still the same. Whether we make an arrest or not is still the same.”
Augusta attorney Walter McKee, chairman of the Maine Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers legislative committee, said the defense bar opposed the original legislation because it created additional felony-level crimes. The final proposal, while potentially adding felony convictions to those who already have felony records, will not create additional felons.
“This really closes a very tiny loophole in the law,” McKee said. “I don’t know how many cases we’re talking about. You can probably count on one hand the number of cases this would apply to.”
Last year, an analysis of repeat offenders by the Portland Press Herald showed that 720 people were convicted of drunken driving three times in the period from 2003 to 2013.
Marks referred to the case David Labonte, of Biddeford, who last year was charged with driving drunk when he drove into a family on bicycles, inflicting fatal injuries on the father.
Labonte had been convicted of drunken driving four times, but none of the convictions was so recent that his license would be declared invalid. It is unclear whether Labonte ever was convicted of felony drunken driving.
“He had a bunch of OUIs that they couldn’t use because they were outside the 10-year window,” Marks said.
The change does make those convicted of drunken driving vulnerable to longer sentences, but McKee said there is no guarantee that will happen. Realistically, judges sentencing drunken-driving defendants with prior felony drunken-driving convictions already consider the defendants’ history, even if the drunken-driving convictions occurred more than 10 years ago, McKee said. In such cases, judges often impose the maximum sentence for a misdemeanor.
“It gives the judge more latitude to impose felony-level consequences,” McKee said. “Whether there’s a significant increase in sentences remains to be seen.”
Portland Press Herald Staff Writer Dennis Hoey contributed to this report.
Craig Crosby — 621-5642 [email protected] Twitter: @CraigCrosby4