Lawmakers wrestle with OUI measure

Posted March 30, 2009, at 8:49 p.m.

AUGUSTA, Maine — By a 10-3 vote, a majority of the Legislature’s Criminal Justice Committee has rejected a bill that would suspend the driver’s license of a person found guilty of operating a recreational vehicle such as a snowmobile or ATV while drunk.

“If one person is stopped from doing this, we have made progress in finally drilling the message home that we are not going to condone OUI while driving your car or truck and we are not going to condone OUI if you are driving something else,” said Sen. John Nutting, D-Leeds. His statement set off sharp comments from other committee members who opposed the bill.

“I don’t think anyone is condoning drunk driving,” said Sen. Stan Gerzofsky, D-Brunswick, co-chairman of the committee. “I don’t think anyone is condoning someone being out on a trail drunker than a skunk driving at 100 miles per hour on their sled.”

Several other committee opponents of the bill were quick to join with Gerzofsky. They said they do not like tying a license to operate a car or truck with OUI on a snowmobile, ATV or boat.

“I just can’t see the connection between the two,” said Rep. David Burns, R-Whiting. “I just don’t see a bridge there to support this.”

Burns is a retired state trooper and said his decision was a difficult one because he acknowledges the suspension would be one more tool for law enforcement to reduce drunken driving.

“I certainly think they need every tool they can get,” Burns said.

Col. Joel Wilkinson, chief of the Maine Warden Service, was disappointed at the vote. He is a strong supporter of the measure, arguing there is a connection between driving a recreational vehicle while drunk and driving a car or truck.

“We feel that the people that are operating on our roadways are the same that are operating on our waterways or inland trails system,” he said. “The one thing we don’t have is the driver’s license suspension provision and we feel that would be the most effective in preventing OUI in the first place.”

In comments to the panel, he said a study of 241 OUI arrests by the warden service from 2003 to 2008 showed that 57 percent also had been arrested for OUI with a car or truck.

But Rep. Ann Haskell, D-Portland, co-chairman of the committee, said that is not a strong enough correlation for her to support the legislation. She said if all of those arrested by the warden service also had been arrested for OUI in a car or truck, she would see the issue differently.

“I just don’t see the connection,” she said. “I would have to be convinced there is a connection before I could vote for this.”

Rep. Gary Plummer, R-Windham, also opposed the bill. He said he has opposed tying a person’s driver’s license to behavior other than that of driving a car or truck.

“My vote against this bill is no more condoning this conduct than my vote against tying [driver’s] license suspension to falsely pulling a fire alarm was condoning that behavior,” he said.

If the bill were to pass, it is not the first time license suspension has been tied to behavior other than driving a motor vehicle. For several years the state has been suspending driver’s license for nonpayment of child support.

Despite the committee vote, supporters believe they have a strong case to take to the full Legislature. Nutting said that unlike previous, similar bills that were opposed by the secretary of state, this time the secretary’s office proposed an amendment that will be the minority report of the committee.

“The amendment would totally replace the bill and would define a motorboat, a snowmobile or an ATV, for the purposes of the OUI law only; they would be considered a motor vehicle,” he said. “This has a lot of support.”

Wilkinson also supports the amended version of the bill and said he will continue to talk with lawmakers and urge passage of the measure. He said it is a top priority of the warden service this session.

“I suspect this will be debated on the floor at some length,” he said.

On that, there is committee agreement.

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