AUGUSTA – Lewiston and Auburn police were pitted against state prosecutors Monday over a proposal that would jail anyone trying to elude a police officer.

Prosecutors and lawyers said the bill, which would mandate one- or two-year jail sentences, would take away flexibility and contribute to more crowded jails.

Speaking for the Maine Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers, attorney Walter McKee said crimes involving eluding an officer are being appropriately punished. “In Kennebec County, there’s nobody eluding an officer who’s not going to jail,” he said.

McKee noted, “Every situation is different. That’s why we should let the judges decide.”

Passing a mandatory jail sentence would make it harder to plea bargain, which would result in more costly trials. “You’d end up handcuffing not only the judge, but the prosecutor,” McKee said.

The Maine Prosecutors Association agreed. Evert Fowle, district attorney for Kennebec and Somerset counties, said Maine already has a prison overcrowding problem. That has resulted in the granting of increased “good time” for inmates to relieve crowded cells.

Any mandatory sentencing law would increase overcrowding, he said, adding he does not want to be back before legislators saying good time must again be increased.

Judges often consider advice from prosecutors, and are delivering the right kind of punishment, Fowle said. When an offender “deserves to be pounded, judges listen to us and deliver a pounding,” he said.

But police disagreed that cases are being fairly punished. They testified that mandatory jail time would stop some chases from ever starting.

Lt. Jason Moen of the Auburn Police Department said his department has had 16 high-speed chases in the last two years, and they are among the “most dangerous and potentially violent situation” officers face.

One chase Moen was involved in started after he attempted to pull over a 17-year-old boy who was speeding. The chase ended after spike mats disabled the vehicle, and the youth was taken into custody. “I interviewed him and asked him what was he thinking. His reply was, ‘I haven’t had my license a year yet. If I get a traffic ticket, I lose my license for 60 days. I didn’t want to lose my license.'”

That boy never saw jail time, and neither did a drunk driver who led police on a another chase, Moen said. “That case was pled down to a misdemeanor.”

In written testimony, Lewiston Police Department Chief William Welch said that nationally 400 to 500 deaths occur each year after motorists refuse to stop for police, and that 42 percent of those deaths happen to innocent bystanders. Nationally, one police officer is killed in a high-speed chase every 11 weeks.

“It is for these reasons that the Lewiston Police Department supports tougher sanctions,” Welch said.

Lewiston resident Fern Asselin had asked Rep. Elaine Makas to sponsor L.D. 280 after Ryan Quinn of Litchfield died in a chase with police last year. On Monday, he said mandatory jail sentences would deter chases.

Asselin cited a recent chase as an example of how frequently they happen. A 17-year-old was arrested Sunday night after allegedly shooting a man, running from police, stealing a truck and leading police through Topsham, Lisbon, Lewiston and Auburn. The stolen truck was stopped in Auburn using spiked mats, which blew the tires.

Under questioning from Criminal Justice Committee member Rep. Richard Sykes, R-Harrison, District Attorney Fowle said mandatory sentencing has reduced drunk driving in Maine.

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