PORTLAND, Maine (AP) — A state law requiring a blood test in all fatal crashes, even without probable cause, is unconstitutional, Maine’s highest court ruled Tuesday in the case of a trucker fighting a manslaughter conviction.
The Supreme Judicial Court issued the ruling even as it upheld the conviction of the Tennessee trucker for two counts of manslaughter, citing a good faith exception because the police officer applied the law as it was then known.
The trucker, Randall Weddle, argued in his appeal that the state law was unconstitutional.
Tuesday’s ruling was a reversal for the state’s supreme court, which previously upheld the constitutionality of the law in 2007. The U.S. Supreme Court has issued further guidance on warrantless searches since then, Justice Joseph Jabar wrote in the ruling.
“Weddle’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. No exception to the Fourth Amendment’s warrant requirement applies,” he wrote.
The ruling means that, going forward, law enforcement officers will either have to establish probable case of impairment or obtain consent before drawing blood for evidence after a crash that either caused, or likely caused, a fatality, said Donald Macomber, assistant attorney general.
Weddle, of Greeneville, Tennessee, is serving a 25-year sentence for manslaughter and driving under the influence in the 2016 crash, in which his tractor-trailer loaded with lumber crashed into oncoming traffic in Washington, Maine. Christina Torres-York, 45, of Warren, and Paul Fowles, 74, of Owls Head, were killed.
A sergeant from the Knox County Sheriff’s Department thought Weddle might be responsible and asked a paramedic to draw blood to preserve evidence.
The officer didn’t obtain consent for the test, nor did he assess Weddle’s sobriety, the court said. Investigators later found a partially consumed bottle of whiskey in the cab of Weddle’s truck, but the officer at the scene didn’t know that at the time.
The court invoked an exception because the officer relied on a law that was deemed constitutional at the time. Suppressing the blood test evidence would “serve no other purpose than to withhold reliable information from the truth-seeking process and punish an officer for doing its job,” Jabar wrote.
The ruling was “bitter” for Weddle because he lost his appeal even though he prevailed on the constitutional argument, said defense attorney Jeremy Pratt. Pratt said he’d probably appeal but needed more time review the decision.
Two justices, Donald Alexander and Robert Clifford, issued a separate opinion concurring with the decision to uphold the conviction but disagreeing on the issue of constitutionality.
Clifford wrote that it was wrong to second-guess the officer at a chaotic scene of a five-vehicle crash in which Weddle was upside down in his cab, another motorist was dead in a car and an additional vehicle was on fire.
Asking police officers to stop and assess the need for further investigation or a warrant while people may be dying is “both short-sighted and unreasonable,” he wrote.
Macomber agreed that it’s a tall order for law enforcement officers to establish probable cause at the scene of a crash.
“Law enforcement’s attention is primarily focused on life-saving activities, so it’s going to be a challenge to develop probable cause,” Macomber said. “But to get blood, they’re going to have to do it now.”
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