An OUI-related Maine law has been ruled unconstitutional by the state’s highest court, which also applied a decades-old United States Supreme Court case for the first time.
The opinion used precedent from a 1984 case that allows evidence from an otherwise unconstitutional search to be used and not suppressed. Without the application of this U.S. Supreme Court case for the first time, the conviction of the defendant could have been undermined. Instead, it still stands.
In the case that was decided, Randall J. Weddle was convicted of a string of offenses including two counts of manslaughter and driving under the influence of alcohol. He was a tractor trailer driver involved in a March 2016 accident in Washington, Maine, involving five vehicles. Two people died. He was then suspected of being responsible, and a county sheriff ordered EMTs to take a sample of his blood (without probable cause or a warrant and without his consent). Hours later, a second sample was taken and he was just below the legal limit. A search of his vehicle days later by law enforcement revealed he had a bottle of whiskey and a shot glass in his cab. He was sentenced to 30 years in prison, all but 25 of which was suspended, with four years of probation and a fine.
The state’s Supreme Judicial Court, sitting as the Law Court, said 29-A M.R.S. § 2522(2) (2018), which mandates law enforcement officers to test the blood of all drivers involved in a fatal, or likely fatal, motor vehicle accident is facially unconstitutional. The court said the law allows such blood draws without the Fourth Amendment’s requirement for a warrant and a showing of probable cause. In turn this makes blood draws without this standard of proof or a warrant (as authorized by the statute) in violation of the Fourth Amendment‘s protection from unreasonable searches.
The court’s decision in State v. Weddle, 2020 ME 12, also uses a ‘good faith exception’ to an otherwise unconstitutional search for the first time. This exception, that police officers acted in good faith, allows evidence that would otherwise be suppressed from still being admissible.
The decision in Weddle is vindication for two justices who said 13 years ago that the statute was facially unconstitutional in their dissent of the majority in State v. Cormier, 2007 ME 112. Weddle overturns that precedent and sides with the dissent in their 2007 disagreement with the other justices at the time.
”[The defendant’s] blood was taken without a warrant, without his consent, and without probable cause to believe that he was impaired by alcohol at the time his blood was drawn,” the court’s opinion said. "No exception to the Fourth Amendment’s warrant requirement applies. Therefore, the warrantless blood draw performed at the scene of the accident pursuant to 29-A M.R.S. § 2522 violated Weddle’s Fourth Amendment right to be free from unreasonable searches and seizures," it added.
This issue had been the subject of a motion to suppress this evidence before his trial. It was denied. Part of the court's role was to re-examine that decision.
The court re-examined the usual remedy for unconstitutional searches - the exclusionary rule, which suppresses evidence obtained as a way to discourage police misconduct. But, as it said officers would have a good faith belief that no probable cause was needed, the Supreme Judicial Court applied the so-called ‘good faith exception’ to this rule first articulated in a case from about 36 years ago (United States v. Leon, 468 U.S. 897 (1984)).
To this point, Maine's Supreme Judicial Court has never ruled on the use of the good faith exception, and had generally decided cases on whether a search had probable cause without ever getting to a question about its applicability. New Hampshire, New Mexico, Vermont, and New Jersey have all rejected the 'good faith' exception, and there was always a possibility that Maine would follow them until this opinion. State courts only have to apply U.S. Supreme Court precedent as the floor below which they cannot go, but are always free to give citizens additional rights in their own state constitutions. Maine's Supreme Judicial Court has explicitly said the state will not do that.
The court affirmed Weddle's conviction.
Update / commentary from attorney Marcus Wraight
Reporting on this decision by WABI had this rather amazing reaction on their website:
“Assistant Attorney General Don Macomber says police departments have been informed of the change in process.
“"The difference now is that they're also going to have to divert their attention from immediate life-saving activities to also try to develop probable cause of impairment before they can draw the blood," said Macomber.”
Let’s think about that for a second. I assume the quote is accurate. What this prosecutor is saying (between the lines with a rhetorical eyeroll) is that probable cause is not needed and should not be. He is also saying that, now that a warrant and probable cause are necessary before putting a needle into someone to get blood (and always has been - and the SJC has acknowledged that fact), police officers are somehow going to be diminished in their attention in helping the injured at an accident, and instead be concentrating more on investigating while people lay injured, or dying. I seriously doubt that. Not only are officers capable of walking and chewing gum at the same time, this demeans officers‘ primary desire to help and their ability to think several things at once. It comes across as disingenuous to say the least.
The bottom line is this. The state can’t start sticking things in people and taking blood without a good reason. If they want to do that, they need to get one, as they always should have done before this decision about this statute. It certainly won’t mean police chin-scratching amid carnage and cries of agony to do that. He might want to have a better opinion of law enforcement‘s empathy, compassion, and competence to think quickly or multi-task.