Under the Dome

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Easy as A-T-V

Lawmakers have debated and debated … and debated all session on legislation that would reverse action they took in a previous session regarding ATV use on private land.

Last year, the Legislature passed a law requiring law enforcement to have “reasonable and articulable” suspicion of wrongdoing before they could stop ATV riders on private land. Later in 2009, the Maine Supreme Court ruled 4-3 that a game warden who had stopped an ATV-er without “reasonable and articulable” suspicion had been justified under the laws at the time. But the new law, requiring law enforcement to have a reason to stop ATV riders on private land, essentially made the court’s decision irrelevant going forward. Law enforcement already had to meet that burden when stopping ATVs on public land.

Lawmakers are again discussing the matter, as a result of some landowners who are upset that ATVs can drive willy-nilly throughout the countryside without as much concern for getting stopped by law enforcement. So one lawmaker sponsored a bill that would move the “reasonable and articulable” suspicion clause, essentially returning the law back to what it was before.

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But that idea met resistance.

As Sen. Bruce Bryant, D-Dixfield, said during debate on Friday, lawmakers are struggling with how to strike a balance between riders, landowners and law enforcement.

“What we are trying to do here is find a compromise that everybody can live with,” he said during floor debate on an amendment that would allow law enforcement to stop ATVs without reasonable and articulable suspicion if the private landowners had given such permission.

The amendment was approved by the Senate on Friday, 20-13. Sen. Carol Weston, R-Montville, joined with all the Democrats in voting to approve the amendment, while all the other Republicans present voted in opposition.

Sen. David Trahan, R-Waldoboro, said the legislation would cause law enforcement an undue burden.

“How is law enforcement supposed to know where a person’s boundaries are? I guess you would be spending a lot of time in with your town clerks looking at their maps trying to figure that out,” he said during debate. “It creates just a complete nightmare, but worse than that, it extends the power that should be vested in the constitution or in statute, with our Legislature, to dismiss articulable suspicion to the landowner. They would then be the ones who decide who has a constitutional right and who does not. That authority should reside only with this Legislature. And this amendment would create a precedent that I think would be very disturbing.”

Sen. Seth Goodall, D-Richmond, said he recognized Trahan’s concerns but felt the amendment was a proper compromise.

“We have to be cognizant of the fact that law enforcement needs suspicion in order to stop people. We should not waive that right. We should not allow someone to be pulled over on their own land for no reason whatsoever,” he said during debate. “The pending amendment is going to strike a balance. Yes, it will require some additional work; yes, it may put a small burden on law enforcement. But that burden is worth it when it is protecting our constitutional right.”

The House, meanwhile, has adopted a different amendment, which means further votes are expected. The House could vote to agree to the actions of the Senate or insist, which means it would stick to its House version. If the House and Senate can’t agree, then the measure dies altogether.

— Rebekah Metzler

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