Boston — Maine legislators, determined to get drinking drivers off the state's roads, have enacted the toughest drunk-driving law in the nation. The new statute mandates 48 hours in jail for any driver convicted of operating a motor vehicle under the influence of alcohol -- and that includes first offenders.
Adding clout to the new law is a June 18 Maine Supreme Court ruling that motorists can be convicted of driving under the influence of alcohol "regardless of the extent of that influence." Thus, a driver need not flunk the Breathalyzer test to be considered unfit to operate a motor vehicle.
In the opinion of some legal experts, this could mean that a person who got behind the wheel after "only a single beer" would risk jailing and other drunk driver penalties.
The new drunk-driving law, which takes effect Sept. 16, gives county prosecutors some latitude in deciding whether to press criminal or civil charges against motorists arrested on charges of driving under the influence.
All liquor-related traffic cases involving drunk driving at speeds more than 30 miles per hour beyond the legal limit, would have to be handled through criminal proceedings. Anyone found guilty would would be subject to at least 48 hours in jail, a minimum $350 fine, and suspension of driving license for not less than 90 days.
Criminal proceedings also would be required if a driver resisted arrest, had a previous drunk-driving conviction, or submitted to a breath test and was found to have in his or her blood an alcohol content equal to or greater than twice the legal maximum under Maine's statutes.
The mandatory penalties are minimums. Stiffer punishment, including longer jailing, heavier fines, and licence suspension for longer periods can be imposed for more serious violations or repeat offenders.
Main will become the second state with mandatory jailings for first time drunk driver convictions. Washington State's similar penalty, in effect for more than a year, has put several hundred motorists behind bars thus far -- but for but 24 hours, half that provided by the new Maine law.
Boosters of the new Main measure say they hope it will deter drinking drivers from getting behind the wheel while under the influence of alcohol.
They point out that while the number of traffic accidents in the state declines from 29,578 to 27,911 from 1979 to 1980, the percentage of liquor-related accidents increased from 8.9 percent to 9.16 percent. and nearly 40 percent of the 234 traffic fatalities last year were liquor-related, according to the state's motor vehicles registry.
The new Maine statute does not increase the maximum penalties for repeat offenders. The law already provided for longer jail terms, heavier fines, and suspension of the driving license for a year or permanently, on repeat convictions for drunk driving.
However, under the new statute, those caught driving during the suspension of their license face a seven-day mandatory jail sentence, a fine of up to $2,500, and extension of their license loss for a full year beyond the termination of the original off-the-road order.
Maine actually is the third state to pass a law mandating jailing of those convicted of drunk driving. Wyoming had a statute requiring that offenders be jailed for 24 hours, but it was repealed earlier this year, before it could be implemented.