End of the road

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A new law is catching motorists by surprise – and yanking their license for three years.

Joe P. Dehetre of Turner knows all about it.

TURNER – At 23, Joe P. Dehetre’s driving record is already long and checkered.

Ten speeding tickets. One more for failing to obey a traffic device. Two for not wearing a seat belt.

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But the bad driving was – mostly – behind him. Joe hadn’t had a moving violation in 15 months when he rolled through a stop sign last January, and he hasn’t had another since.

Then, in June he got a letter from the Secretary of State.

That stop sign ticket triggered a little-publicized part of Tina’s Law, passed last summer and inspired by serial bad driver Scott Hewitt, who crashed into and killed a woman on the Turnpike.

That law labels anyone with 10 moving violations in five years a habitual offender – even if nine of those 10 violations happened before the law existed.

That ticket was the 10th in five years for Joe. Now he can’t drive for the next three years.

“It’s pretty mind-boggling,” he said. “I had no idea, no clue.”

He works a day job in construction. His mother, Alison, has been bringing him back and forth. She’s made calls to the Secretary of State’s Office, to legislators, to anyone she can think of.

“He gets so frustrated and wound up, he cries, he yells,” she said. She supports Tina’s Law but thinks it should target people operating after suspension, like Hewitt, not people with moving violations, like her son.

“Everybody you talk to, it’s double-dipping,” said Alison. Her son had already paid $3,000-plus in fines, lost his license multiple times and spent four days in jail for his driving convictions.

Joe, sitting in his parents’ kitchen, complains it’s just unfair.

“Some guy killed somebody and now I have to deal with it.”

‘You don’t understand: We’re serious’

Forty-nine people have lost their license under that provision since August, according to the Secretary of State’s Office.

Half had at least one major conviction on their record – operating under the influence, driving to endanger, passing a roadblock – and half, like Joe, did not.

None were warned it might happen. The state discussed sending out notices before Tina’s Law passed and specifically decided against it.

“Frankly, we didn’t go there simply because we weren’t sure we’d be able to reach them all,” said Secretary of State Matt Dunlap. Then there was the issue of liability. Could someone blame the state if they never got their notice?

“That was one of Scott Hewitt’s claims: He never knew he was under suspension,” Dunlap said.

After hearing complaints, Dunlap said he and legislators reviewed the law in April to see if it was unexpectedly snaring lots of people. They decided it wasn’t; some 70,000 Maine licenses are suspended for varying amounts of time every year.

“Frankly, I think it’s something we stand behind. The highway safety component is just too strong of an element to ignore,” Dunlap added. “The message of habitual offender revocation is that we see that you don’t really understand that we’re serious about this.”

Barring a paperwork error, there’s no way to challenge the habitual offender status; an appeal consists of two questions: Is this really you and does your record meet the habitual offender definition?

After 18 months, drivers can petition Dunlap for a work-restricted license.

“If they’ve gotten 10 offenses, that means they’re pretty much ignoring the law,” said Sen. Bill Diamond, D-Windham, an original sponsor. Whatever punishment got meted out before, “That wasn’t having any effect – perhaps this will. That’s what the purpose of the law is.”

‘Not good enough’

Joe racked up speeding tickets on his old job delivering tires, said his father, Glenn Dehetre: “When he was late they were down his throat.”

Recently, his son was doing “awesome.” The last speeding ticket was October 2005. (There had been subsequent tickets for failure to produce proof of insurance and operating with a suspended registration; those aren’t considered moving violations and didn’t count toward the 10. He has had 23 convictions in all.)

“My driving record prior to that, not by any means was it good,” Joe said. His family says his license had been suspended three times. The Secretary of State’s Office counts eight.

He had moved back home to save money even before he lost his license under Tina’s Law. Joe catches rides to work with his mom, a nurse. He had to give up a side job as a handyman.

“It doesn’t look very good when you pull up to someone’s house, your mom drops you off and you get out with tools,” he said.

Joe’s girlfriend drives when they go out on weekends. “It’s pretty embarrassing.”

“A hearing 18 months from now would be good,” he said. “But not good enough.”

State Rep. Larry Sirois, D-Turner, has heard from another constituent in the same situation. That driver is 25 with a pregnant girlfriend.

“They’re struggling,” Sirois said. It’s hard for the man to get to work. “That bothers me because it’s their livelihood. That creates hardships.”

The Attorney General’s Office is involved with a lawsuit from a southern Maine woman over the loss of her license under the law. A spokesman couldn’t comment on pending litigation and no more information was available.

Alison Dehetre plans to lobby the Legislature when it reconvenes in the winter. She said she’s talked to so many people who weren’t aware of the provision that lost her son his license.

“They’ve just got to change some stuff, and he suffers in the meantime,” she said. “And me.”

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