Imprecise wording in the state’s new hands-free driving law that took effect at 12:01 a.m. Thursday means that Mainers ticketed for holding a cellphone while driving could pay a dramatically higher fine for a first offense than legislators intended.

Sen. William Diamond, D-Cumberland, sponsored the legislation to prohibit drivers from holding or manipulating cellphones or other non-necessary electronic devices and said his intent in submitting the bill and during hearings with other lawmakers was to impose a base fine of $50 for first offenses. With court fees tacked on, Diamond expected the total penalty to be $85.

But the language of the law as drafted and signed by Gov. Janet Mills specifies a fine of “not less than $50,” a minor but critical difference that allows the chief judge of the District Courts to set the base fine.

In an updated schedule of fine amounts released Wednesday, Chief Judge Susan Oram set the hands-free driving penalty at $230 total, $170 for the base fine and $60 in required fees. It’s more than three times the base amount that Diamond intended, and vastly more than what he believed first-time offenders would be made to pay.

Although Oram declined to be interviewed, Julia Finn, a spokeswoman for the judiciary, said Oram decided to set the fine consistent with the penalty for driving 20 mph over the posted speed limit.

“The statutory amount referenced there is a minimum, not a statutory mandatory amount,” said John T. Smith, service center manager for the Maine Violations Bureau, the division of the judiciary that handles traffic tickets. “Typically the chief judge would look at other similar types of offenses and would look at what would be deemed to be within that range, what is an appropriate amount, (based) perhaps on the severity of the offense.”

Judges still have discretion to lower the amount within the scope of the law if a driver contests the ticket in court, Smith said. The total written on citations is known as the waiver fine, or the amount levied if a driver waives the right to a trial and does not contest the violation or fails to respond to the violation in time and a default judgment is entered.

By law, Oram has the authority to determine the precise amount of any base traffic fine not spelled out in statute. After Oram determines the base fine, the violations bureau adds 20 percent plus a flat $25 to every violation amount.

“I’m a little concerned that the chief district court judge would triple it,” Diamond said. “That doesn’t make sense to me. This is totally out of (line with) what the intent was and what we told people.”

Diamond was informed about the unintended increase by a reporter Wednesday afternoon, and said he would immediately ask Oram to voluntarily walk back the higher fine or he would submit an emergency bill in the upcoming legislative session to correct the language. It was unknown whether Diamond reached anyone in the judiciary before the end of business Wednesday.

“Whatever we did and talked about in committee, everyone’s understanding was $50,” Diamond said. “I’ll definitely look into this and if we need to address it in the next legislative session, that’s something I’ll pursue.”

The new law prohibits drivers from holding or manipulating a cellphone or other electronic device while driving. Motorists are permitted to use a phone so long as it is securely held in a cradle or mount that does not obstruct the view of the roadway, and the interaction requires a single touch, tap or swipe to activate hands-free features.

Bluetooth or other hands-free technology also is permitted, as are in-dash entertainment systems that link up to a driver’s phone to take calls and compose text messages without having to hold a device or take one’s hands off the wheel.

The new fine schedule was released a day before the law took effect, and three months after the Legislature adjourned. Police do not have discretion to write a ticket for a lower amount, and must abide by the violation bureau’s specified fees.

Diamond suggested the error could have occurred with the nonpartisan legislative staff who are responsible for drafting the text of each lawmaker’s bill. That draft language is also the baseline on which committee discussions and amendments occur.

But Diamond’s original bill, L.D. 165, always qualified the $50 as a minimum and never used language that specified it should by exactly $50. Diamond and his colleagues never caught the error, he said, and the provision remained unchanged through the amendment process before the transportation committee voted it out unanimously for the wider Legislature.

Maine joins 19 other states and the District of Columbia in banning handhold cellphone use while driving. In New England, where Massachusetts is now the only state without such a law, fines and fees vary widely.

In New York State, where a cellphone ban has been in place since 2001, penalties range between $50 to $200, plus a $93 surcharge, for the first offense.

Vermont levies a fine between $100 and $200 for the first offense, and between $250 and $500 for second or subsequent offense within a two-year period, although it was unclear whether it is police or the courts who have discretion to determine the precise fine for each violation. New Hampshire charges the same fines as Vermont, but adds a 24 percent fee on top of the base fine.

The Maine Legislature estimated that 1,100 violations will be written by June 30, 2020, and 5,500 tickets between July 1, 2020, and June 30, 2021.  By comparison, police wrote about 1,600 tickets for texting while driving in 2018. More than 1,300 convictions resulted.

This is not the first time the way a bill was worded had unintended consequences. A missing “and” in the Legislature’s 11,633-word, 2013 energy bill reduced funding for energy efficiency programs for homeowners and businesses across Maine by up to $38 million.

The Legislature eventually restored the funding, but had to overcome a veto by former Gov. Paul LePage to do so.

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