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 by Susan Oram, the chief judge of the District Courts, brings the fine down to a base rate of $50 from $170, which was more than triple what lawmakers believed they were imposing when the 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 lawmakers 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.

“I think that solution is perfect,” said Sen. William Diamond, D-Windham, who sponsored the Legislature. “It puts (the fine) back with what the intent was and what we said it would be.”

Diamond said he 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 Maine Supreme Judicial Court Chief Justice Leigh I. Saufley, and he was optimistic a fix would come soon.

By state law, the chief judge of the District Court system 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 wording “of not less than $50” opened the fine to interpretation by Oram.

Though neither Oram nor Saufley responded to requests for interviews about the issue, earlier this week a spokeswoman for the judiciary said Oram initially decided to set the fine consistent with the penalty for driving 20 mph over the posted speed limit.

“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 Friday. “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.”

Diamond said he will submit an emergency bill to fix the language as soon as the Legislature reconvenes in January. He expects the measure to pass easily.

“I think everybody felt like we kind of gave our word on this, and keeping that fine at a level we all talked about is very important for public confidence,” he said. “I think it’s important we do what we say we’re going to do.”

The new law prohibits almost all 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.

It was not immediately clear how many tickets were issued across the state on Friday, the first full day of enforcement. Practices varied by police department when the law took effect on Thursday, with at least one agency, the Augusta Police Department, deciding to issue warnings because of the confusion over the intended fine amount. The Maine State Police and the Portland Police Department had not compiled any data about how officers enforced the law as of Friday afternoon.

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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