Maine’s civil statute of a motor vehicle violation resulting in death was passed by lawmakers in 2009.
It hasn’t been used much by prosecutors, but a local district attorney’s office has been building cases for it more recently.
They tell us while the law isn’t able to bring back a loved one after a motor vehicle death, it puts some onus on the responsible driver and, potentially some justice for the impacted family.
64-year-old Karla Kenniston was killed in a head-on crash on Rt. 2 in Enfield in 2014.
Katie Drost plead no contest to a civil charge.
She lost her license for three years and was fined $4,000.
But for the family affected, the punishment isn’t enough.
Caitlin Burchill spoke to Kenniston’s family.
Their lives haven’t been the same since a head-on car crash killed Karla Kenniston–a loving mother, sister, and daughter.
Looking through some of her paintings only accentuates her family’s pain.
“It’s like part of your arm, part of your body is gone,” said Kenniston’s mother JoAnne Hinkelman.
“It’s like the last piece of us is gone. You never expect something like that to happen in the blink of an eye,” said Kenniston’s youngest sister Kathi Hinkelman-Emery.
When Sgt. Andrew Whitehouse responded to the scene, he knew it was a bad one.
“They had no opportunity to break. It was just her turning right in front of them,” he said.
Sgt. Whitehouse was assigned to investigate.
“I think we owe it to the families. We want to make sure the families get a clear picture of what happened,” he said.
After seizing the drivers’ phones and conducting drug tests, among other things, Sgt. Whitehouse presented his findings to Penobscot County Assistant District Attorney Marianne Lynch.
Her office ultimately determines if a case goes to court.
“In this particular case, she failed to yield, but during the course of the investigation that’s the only thing we could come up with that she had done inappropriate,” said Sgt. Whitehouse.
There was no proof to criminally charge the driver with manslaughter or aggravated OUI.
The DA’s Office decided to cite the driver with a motor vehicle violation resulting in death, a civil charge.
“The civil case does not diminish the loss these families held and it certainly does not diminish the seriousness of the case. There’s a great sense if injustice and we understand it. We can only work with the law that we’ve been provided,” said Lynch.
Despite Kenniston’s death, Maine doesn’t have a misdemeanor motor vehicle statute with a consequence of jail time.
“So there’s something. Could it be better? Absolutely,” said Lynch.
The Penobscot County District Attorney’s Office has used this statute to prosecute six times since 2013, more, they say, than their counterparts in other Maine counties.
“When this law was first proposed, prosecutors around the state had some misgivings about whether or not it would be effective, but as time has gone on its apparent that if you have the right prosecutor and a police department that’s willing to put in the effort, you can develop a case and bring some satisfaction to the families we were concerned about,” said Penobscot County District Attorney Chris Almy.
In 2004, Karla’s younger sister, Kristi Birmingham, lost another loved one in a motorcycle crash before this civil statute was enacted.
The driver at fault was fined for a traffic violation.
“$100 fine or something,” said Birmingham.
Now the fines are much larger and drivers can lose their license for up to 4 years.
Birmingham agrees this new law is better than it was, but it’s still not enough.
“You were driving and you made a horrendous mistake and that horrendous mistake is what has caused all of the suffering that’s been stated here today,” said the court justice on Drost’s sentencing day.
Assistant District Attorney Marianne Lynch expects motor vehicle legislation to evolve, as drunk driving laws did over time, especially with the possible legalization of marijuana.
Because of one driver’s poor decision, a Lincoln family’s life has been changed forever.
A sober reminder for all of us that when we’re behind the wheel, we’re essentially driving a dangerous weapon.
To hear more about the family’s loss, click here to watch “Deadly Driving Laws” Part 2.