AUGUSTA — A bill before the Legislature aimed at clarifying fines for first violations of a ban on hand-held phone use while driving no longer contains language specifying that the ban would apply to parking lots.

The bill, L.D. 1901, is designed to make clear that anyone driving while using a mobile phone without a hands-free device would face a total penalty of $85 for a first offense, sponsor Sen. Bill Diamond, D-Windham, said Tuesday.

During a public hearing on the bill, Diamond said the language concerning phone use while driving in a parking lot needs work, notably concerning the difference between how the law would treat public and private lots.

He said the primary intent of the new bill was to fix mistakes in the existing law.

Currently, the bill’s language requires a fine of “not less than” $50 for a first offense. Diamond said the new bill would make it clear that the penalty for a first offense would be $50, plus $35 in court fees, for a total of $85. The fine for any additional offenses would be $250, plus fees.

The imprecise language in the original bill was noticed when the hands-free cellphone law took effect in September. Lawmakers were alarmed when Maine Chief District Court Judge Susan Oram, who is authorized to set fines if a statute doesn’t establish a specific amount, put the fine at $170, with added fees that drove the total penalty to $230. That was roughly triple the total of $85 lawmakers had intended when writing the bill.

Those concerns were addressed a day later when Oram agreed to set the total first-offense penalty at $85, but only for six months. The fine and court fees will jump back to $230 in April unless the Legislature acts.

Diamond said he made an agreement with Maine Supreme Judicial Court Justice Leigh Saufley that the Legislature would fix the language. He said that adding the parking lot prohibition, even though it was backed by Maine State Police, would only delay the fix and possibly kill the bill.

The new bill also makes it clear that the law does not apply to HAM radio or Citizens Band radio operators or to those using the First Net network – which allows authorized emergency responders to use mobile phones as point-to-point radios in an emergency.

Diamond said he may seek a way to tack the parking lot component onto another bill as an amendment, or it could be dealt with by the next Legislature in 2021.

“But we just realized trying to put that in this bill would slow things down and that’s not the agreement I had with the chief justice on this,” Diamond said after the hearing Tuesday.

 

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