Apr. 16—Arrests for operating under the influence in Portland and in rural parts of Cumberland County surged in the first quarter of 2021, worrying public safety officials who said they hope motorists use common sense as night life returns to the city this spring.
Portland police Chief Frank Clark said officers have made 84 operating-under-the-influence arrests since the start of the year, including 19 that involved vehicle crashes. That is roughly double the number of OUI citations issued during the same period last year when officers arrested 41 people, and a 71 percent increase over that period in 2019, when 49 motorists were charged.
Clark was joined by members of a half-dozen area police departments and a representative of AAA of Northern New England in urging drivers not to drive under the influence of alcohol or drugs.
In 13 cases this year, Portland police said, motorists were impaired by substances other than alcohol. Clark said in one case, a woman told officers she had been drinking before she crashed, and was smoking marijuana and texting at the time of the wreck.
Although there is no hard evidence yet that recreational marijuana is contributing significantly to crashes, deaths or OUI arrests in Maine, other states have seen upticks following legalization, Clark said, and he hopes Maine can head off a similar trend. Marijuana was cited in 4 percent of the 84 cases, while alcohol was a factor in 84 percent.
The department has one officer trained to recognize when drivers are impaired by more than one substance, and 10 more who attended an advanced field sobriety testing training course.
"We hope that people who feel impaired to the slightest degree will plan ahead and think about alternative ways to get home, whether that's designated drivers, ride-shares or taxis," Clark said.
The Cumberland County Sheriff's Office has seen a similar increase over last year, when deputies charged 34 people with OUI offenses from Jan. 1 to April 12, said Chief Deputy Naldo Gagnon. Deputies patrol only rural parts of the county that do not have municipal police departments.
This year, Gagnon said, 56 people have been charged, and there have been 12 OUI-related crashes. In eight cases, a mix of drugs and alcohol was involved, he said.
"With spring coming, with the curfew and the other COVID restrictions that have been lifting and loosening, we're all trying to figure out what the new normal is going to look like, and I definitely see more commuters, pedestrians and visitors in the city today than I did at this time last year," Clark said.
Cumberland County District Attorney Jonathan Sahrbeck said OUIs across all towns in Cumberland County are down slightly this year, but he did not provide numbers.