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
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
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
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
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