Maine took a stand against habitual offenders, yet some are still trying to undo it

By Sen. Jeff Timberlake

(Editor’s Note: This column originally appeared in the Sun Journal.)

I’m amazed every session when I see the bill titles published by the Legislature’s Revisor’s Office. Some are new. Some are compelling. Yet a few perennial favorites from persistent authors who keep trying to get them enacted never seem to die despite repeated defeats by both sides of the aisle.

A look at this year’s bill titles marks the return of some of those favorites. Several bills want to tinker with cannabis while another wants to revisit unionizing farm workers, which was vetoed last year.

A bill requiring background checks for private firearms sales is also reincarnated this year as LD 168 based on the same language as LD 999 last year and LD 1662 in 2016. Ironically, the latter was later defeated at the ballot box in November that year as referendum Question 3.

Jeff Timberlake – Androscoggin

Still, a bill that a former Democratic representative tried to get through the Legislature in both 2020 and 2022 has again found life through a new sponsor. This time, LD 429, which aims to decriminalize certain motor vehicle infractions, is the current iteration of LD 1604 submitted last year and LD 2043 in the 129th. 

Unfortunately, this bill takes aim at the very law that has helped reduce habitual offenders and operating a vehicle after suspension (OAS) or revocation (OAR) offenses in Maine since “Tina’s Law” was enacted in 2006.

Tina Turcotte was killed in July 2005 when truck driver Scott Hewitt, of Caribou, slammed into the rear of her car amid slowing traffic on Interstate 95 in Hallowell. The collision crushed the 40-year-old Scarborough woman’s vehicle between his cab and another truck in front of her – she tragically died two days later.

Yet Turcotte’s death proved to be the catalyst that forced lawmakers to confront a problem that had been growing for decades. Soon after the accident, authorities found that Hewitt had 63 convictions, 22 license suspensions and a previous fatality on his driving record. In all respects, he should not have been behind a wheel.

In 2006, Maine’s 122nd Legislature responded by unanimously passing LD 1906, “An Act to Safeguard Maine’s Highways.” Named in her honor, the bill strengthened Maine’s operating after suspension/revocation violations and habitual offender laws. It also created two new crimes related to causing serious bodily injury or death while driving with a suspended or revoked license and aggravated operating after habitual offender revocation.

When Tina’s Law was enacted in 2006, 5,739 people across the state were convicted that year of either OAS or OAR offenses. That included 406 people whose licenses were suspended for the more serious operating under the influence (OUI). By 2021, the latest year figures are available, OAS and OAR convictions dropped by half to 2,888 and only 79 involved OUI suspensions, a 413% reduction.

Meanwhile, 1,229 habitual offenders were tracked by the State in 2006. By 2021, that figure dropped by nearly two-thirds to only 418. Therefore, something is clearly working.

That’s not to say there still haven’t been tragic incidents. When a Saco father was killed and his wife and 17-month-old son injured in Biddeford while bicycling in 2013, the drunk driver who crashed into the family, David Labonte, of Biddeford, had four OUI convictions on his record. With the enhanced penalties of Tina’s Law, however, he was serving a 10-year sentence when he died in 2020.

And last March, Ethan Rioux-Poulios, of Woodstock, reportedly led police on a chase in Oxford County after critically injuring Nicole Kumiega, 29, of Portland. He was on probation at the time and his license should have been suspended after a guilty plea in 2021 for vehicular manslaughter, which was the result of another police chase in 2019 that killed John Pikiell, 71, of Norway.

If LD 429 is passed, it will undo the progress achieved in the past 16 years. While some of the bill aims to clear a backlogged judicial system, the bottom line is Democrats risk reversing a solid record of results and endangering the lives of Mainers.

With speeding, reckless driving and traffic deaths reportedly at 15-year highs, it’s obvious we’ve already lost some ground during the pandemic. Now is not the time to lose any more.

Senator Jeff Timberlake is in his third term and represents District 17. He is the Senate Republican Lead for the Legislature’s Veterans and Legal Affairs Committee and a member of the Government Oversight Committee.

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