SMACKDOWN - Drivers, dog-poop scofflaws, everybody

"Tina's Law" has been voted "ought to pass" by legislators intent on cracking down on bad driving on Maine roads. But in their zeal to lock up folks whose driver's licenses have been suspended many times, they have also devised a plan in which the innocent could go to jail.

Try this on for size: You're walking your dog and it takes a dump on a city sidewalk or greenspace. You don't see it (yeah, right) but a police officer does, and gives you a ticket. You shove the ticket into your jeans pocket and forget about it. It goes through the laundry (yeah, right) and is ruined. So when the time comes you don't show up to court, and, surprise! your driver's license is suspended. (The state is supposed to mail you a letter to tell you this, and Tina's Law would also require you to mail your license in to the state. But there's no real timeline for any of this in practice, even if there is in the law.)

Then, a couple days later, you're sitting happily at a stop sign when someone rear-ends your car. Under Tina's Law, if the driver who rear-ended you is hurt (or even if you yourself are injured!) you'd be guilty of a felony and headed to prison for the new crime of "contributing to an accident." Minimum sentence? Three years. And there's even a nice little clause in the law telling judges they can't be nice and "suspend" your sentence, effectively letting you off if you behave yourself in the future.

What was your crime, you ask. That's right - not picking up dog poop. Three years in jail for that. Or for any other offense, including failure to pay a fine for just about any civil offense, or failure to pay child support. (What's wrong with being jailed for failing to pay child support? How about being sentenced to work, with all the money going to the kid you're supposed to take care of.)

According to statistics from the Secretary of State's office, which oversees motor-vehicle laws, the state issued 1826 license suspensions in 2004 for failure to pay child support, and 7923 for failure to pay fines as ordered by a judge. (Multiple suspensions issued to the same person are counted separately; the number of individuals involved is not available from the state.)

That new crime specifies that anyone involved in an accident, if they are driving with a suspended license, "regardless of fault," and regardless of what crime got their license suspended in the first place, is a felon requiring locking up.

Are things so bad we have to do that, though? The AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety found that Maine was one of the safest states in the nation during the 1990s, as far as unlicensed or suspended drivers' involvements in fatal accidents. So we really don't have a problem - or, put another way, our "problem" is one other states would trip over each other to have, instead of their own.

It's true that the numbers are startling - that there are nearly 45,000 people in Maine whose license has been suspended between 5 and 9 times; that there are 15,098 people whose license has been suspended between 10 and 14 times; and that 8110 people have had their license suspended 15 or more times.

But those suspension totals can add up over decades, and when the law changed in 2003 to allow suspension of a driver's license for failure to pay a fine for a civil infraction like not picking up dog poop, the numbers skyrocketed.

One of those hit with the 2003 law change was Scott Hewitt, whose tractor-trailer crushed the sedan of Tina Turcotte, 40, of Scarborough, on July 29, 2005, killing her. Hewitt had a suspended license at the time of the crash, based on his failure to pay a fine for possession of marijuana some months before. He has a lengthy record of more than 60 traffic violations and more than 20 license suspensions, not all for being a bad driver.

So in creating a law that would jail Hewitt - who has been charged with manslaughter after it initially appeared he would only get hit with a misdemeanor charge of operating after suspension - the Legislature also created a law that could jail thousands of Mainers whose driving has never been a problem.

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