August 18, 2013

Maine OUI laws show much leeway


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In May the National Transportation Safety Board recommended that all 50 states amend their drunken-driving laws to lower the BAC threshold from 0.08 percent to 0.05 percent.

It could take several years before those standards would be adopted and some industry groups, including the American Beverage Institute, are likely to fight the change. NTSB officials believe it's just a matter of time, however. More than 100 countries already have legal BAC levels of 0.05 percent or lower.

Declining rates

More than 115,000 people have been charged with one drunken driving offense in the state since 1982, the earliest year the state's electronic database tracks. Almost 28,000 were charged with two OUIs.

Geoffrey Rushlau, district attorney for Lincoln, Knox and Sagadahoc counties and a prosecutor for more than 30 years, said the number of people on the road with multiple OUIs is a concern, but the law seems to be adequate for most offenders.

"Year after year the vast majority of OUI defendants get convicted only once," he said. "(The law) doesn't stop them once, but it seems to be effective at stopping them from doing it again."

The number of drunken-driving arrests in Maine has been declining in recent years, from 8,029 in 2001 to 6,026 in 2011.

Conviction rates vary from county to county, from 37 percent in York County to 83 percent in Hancock and Penobscot counties over 10 years, an analysis by the Portland Press Herald/Maine Sunday Telegram found last year.

A person's right to drive is determined by the Bureau of Motor Vehicles, however, not a conviction. A defendant can plead to a lesser charge or be found not guilty, and the drunken-driving offense will still appear on his driving record because it is an administrative decision, not a criminal sanction.

With slightly more than 1 million licensed drivers in Maine, the number of drivers with multiple OUIs has startled some in law enforcement.

The bureau's electronic database includes people from out of state who were charged in Maine and people who no longer drive either because they gave it up or, in some cases, died.

The number of people currently under suspension in Maine for OUI -- whether licensed in Maine or out of state -- is 35,145.

Secretary of State Matthew Dunlap, who oversees the state's licensing, said the key to reducing alcohol-related fatalities is for individual drivers to examine their own behavior.

"You read the narrative of events around some of these tragedies and you want to scream, 'Don't get in the car. Don't do it,'" he said. "There's the inevitable collision. Someone is paralyzed, someone is killed, someone loses a father or daughter. It's terrible."

Passing increasingly severe penalties yields diminishing returns, he said.

"You've got to get people to believe when we talk about the faceless menace of a drunk driver, we have to consider the possibility that that's us," Dunlap said. "We are that driver. Then you have to do the necessary things to make sure you don't become that headline, and that's very, very difficult."

Kennebec County District Attorney Maeghan Maloney said that if someone has a valid license, the state has found that legally that person is safe to drive.

"Of course, someone with multiple OUIs is a safety concern, and that's why it's very important that that person receive treatment, if the OUI is alcohol-related, for alcohol dependency, because at that point it's clear the person has a problem with alcohol," she said.

While penalties are important, addressing the underlying problem is essential, she said. That is more effective than suspending someone's license, since the person already has shown a willingness to break the law.

"As much as possible I want to give people the opportunity to turn their life around, but if someone has three or more OUIs, then at that point it is necessary for the person to complete a treatment program to deal with the underlying problem or we could have a fatality in the future," Maloney said.

Criminal sanctions work for a large percentage of the population, said Dr. Mark Publicker, head of the Mercy Recovery Center in Westbrook. But alcohol impairs judgment and the ability to regulate behavior, and that includes the decision to drink and drive.

In some cases, stopping people from drinking can be more effective than trying to stop them from driving.

"Alcoholism is a chronic illness that requires chronic attention and some form of reinforcement of sobriety," Publicker said, noting that Alcoholics Anonymous has the best rate of long-term success. "At the point where the person no longer believes they have a problem is when drinking is going to express itself."

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