A federal initiative to increase drunken driving arrests and convictions has the potential to save lives. But a better way might be for the feds to study how Maine handles drunken driving.
The federal initiative urges states to adopt a “no refusal” policy for Breathalyzer tests. Nationally, one person in four stopped on suspicion of drunken driving refuses to take the breath test. In New Hampshire, 81 percent of suspected drunken drivers refuse the test. This poses problems for law enforcement agencies and prosecutors. In court, prosecutors then must rely on an officer’s testimony on how the driver acted — often, a subjective assessment.
The federal Transportation Department wants more states to adopt a “no refusal” policy on breath tests. Arizona, Florida, Idaho, Illinois, Kansas, Louisiana, Missouri, Texas and Utah have such laws. Twenty-one other states have the authority to adopt such a policy, but have not done so. Under the policy, when a driver is stopped on suspicion of drunken driving or for another infraction and the officer believes the driver is under the influence of alcohol, the driver is asked to take a breath test. If he or she refuses, an on-call judge is contacted. The judge, based on the description of the suspect, issues an order for a blood test, which is conducted by a nurse at a hospital or police station.
The policy has resulted in more convictions, more guilty pleas and fewer car crashes attributed to drunken driving.
But Maine Public Safety Commissioner Anne Jordan believes the state has a better approach. In Maine, unlike in neighboring New Hampshire, those suspected of driving drunk generally comply when asked to submit to a breath test. So far this year, just 607 refused to take the test from among 9,035 OUI cases. In 2008, 416 refused the test from among 9,118 suspects.
It’s not that Mainers are more submissive to or respectful of law enforcement officers than their New Hampshire neighbors. It’s that Maine punishes those who don’t comply with requests to submit to breath tests.
By refusing to take a breath test, a driver here automatically loses his or her license for 275 days — it’s considered an administrative suspension — even if the case is dismissed later by a court. A second refusal, even if the first case ended in an acquittal, results in an 18-month license suspension. A third refusal results in a four-year suspension.
The state’s Supreme Judicial Court has upheld this system, Commissioner Jordan said.
While the court-ordered blood tests the federal government wants to see implemented may work in some states, Commissioner Jordan believes it is impractical in Maine, where an officer may have to drive a suspect for many miles to a hospital to get a nurse to draw blood.
Drunken driving remains a deadly problem, in Maine and elsewhere, and policymakers should continue to consider more effective solutions. The Maine approach should be an option elsewhere.