AUGUSTA — The state’s highest court is considering whether a blood draw at the scene of a fatal car crash was constitutional, a ruling that could set a precedent for drunken-driving investigations in Maine.

That question is the basis of an appeal by a Tennessee truck driver who was convicted of manslaughter and other crimes for a 2016 Knox County crash that killed two people. A 2003 statute requires a chemical test as soon as practical for the driver in a fatal or possibly fatal crash, even if probable cause has not been established to believe that person was under the influence. So police requested a blood draw while Randall Weddle was in an ambulance on the side of Route 17 in Washington that day, and the resulting blood alcohol level of 0.09 percent was part of the evidence at his jury trial last year. The legal limit in Maine is 0.08.

The Maine Supreme Judicial Court appears to be wrestling with the decision.

The court asked for a second round of oral arguments – a rare request. The justices also invited amicus briefs on whether a warrantless blood draw could be considered a reasonable search and seizure in certain circumstances, like a deadly crash.

Dmitry Bam, the interim dean at the University of Maine School of Law and a constitutional law professor, said other states have been grappling with legal questions around warrantless blood draws. In 2013, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that people suspected of drunken driving cannot automatically be subjected to a blood test. But the justices said each case needs to be considered individually, so law enforcement officers do still have the option to draw blood without a warrant in some circumstances.

“They left this uncertainty,” Bam said.

Weddle, now 57, was behind the wheel of a Freightliner tractor-trailer carrying lumber on March 18, 2016. Police said the truck crossed into oncoming traffic, and witnesses described lumber flying off the back. Five vehicles were involved in the crash, and others were forced off the road into a field. Two drivers – 74-year-old Paul Fowles of Owls Head and 45-year-old Christina Torres-York of Warren – died. Weddle had to be extricated from the truck cab and was later taken by LifeFlight helicopter to Central Maine Medical Center in Lewiston. He was treated, released and arrested weeks later in Virginia.

Court documents show law enforcement requested the first blood draw while Weddle was still in the ambulance on the side of the road. A second blood draw at the hospital showed a blood alcohol level of 0.073 percent. The legal limit in Maine is 0.08 for most drivers and 0.04 for commercial drivers.

Defense attorney Jeremy Pratt tried to suppress the roadside blood draw, but a judge allowed the result to be admitted at trial. A Knox County jury convicted Weddle in January 2018 on 15 charges, including two counts of manslaughter and three of aggravated operating under the influence. Weddle already had multiple convictions for operating under the influence, and his license had been suspended or revoked in two other states. A judge sentenced him to 30 years in prison with all but 25 suspended. Pratt appealed, and the Supreme Judicial Court heard the first oral arguments earlier this year.

The justices seemed at odds during the second oral arguments Wednesday at the Capital Judicial Center in Augusta. They lobbed questions at the attorneys for both sides – Pratt and Deputy District Attorney Jeffrey Baroody. In particular, they asked about whether it mattered when the police had probable cause to believe Weddle had been drinking, and if that determination could be made after the blood test.

Maine’s law allows for the test results to be admitted at trial even if that probable cause is determined after the blood draw. In this case, court records show medical personnel on the scene later reported smelling alcohol on Weddle’s breath, and a bottle of Crown Royal liquor was found in the truck cab days later.

“If the officers had focused on finding probable cause as opposed to saving people’s lives, they would have had it, correct?” Justice Donald Alexander asked the defense attorney.

Justice Ellen Gorman spoke before Pratt could respond.

“But Mr. Pratt, you would agree that probable cause needs to be determined by the officer, so that the officer understands that he has the right to invade someone’s privacy?” she asked.

“Yes, I would agree with that, and I would answer Justice Alexander by saying that there is not probable cause if the officers have not determined probable cause,” Pratt said.

Chief Justice Leigh Saufley asked the prosecutor about the broader implications of a ruling upholding the current statute. She outlined a hypothetical case in which police conduct a blanket search of people’s computers until they find a photo of a child being abused.

Baroody started to answer but was interrupted by Alexander.

“Now that is not the same as saving people who are on the ground bleeding, putting out fires in vehicles,” he said.

“That’s right, your honor,” Baroody said. “This applies to fatal or probable fatal crashes that are very limited situations.”

Saufley said the court upheld this law once before for that reason.

“But tough cases can make bad law,” she said. “Are we not at risk of essentially eroding one of the most important constitutional protections that stands between citizens and state overrunning those citizens?”

“I don’t think so, your honor,” Baroody answered.

Pratt also said the state has cited no other case law to support this statute, and Baroody conceded he was not aware of any.

It is not clear whether Maine’s exact law is on the books elsewhere, but Bam said other states are grappling with their own rules for mandatory testing in drunken-driving cases.

“I do think it is an open question,” he said.

The court also received two amicus briefs on the case, and both argued that the existing law is unconstitutional. One came from Portland defense attorney Lawrence Winger. The other was submitted jointly by the American Civil Liberties Union of Maine and the Maine Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers.

“Retroactive application of probable cause disregards the very purpose of the probable cause requirement – to understand what the officer knew or reasonably believed at the time of the search or seizure,” those two organizations wrote in their brief. “Allowing officers to bootstrap later-learned facts to create probable cause – as in (this statute) – impermissibly turns the probable cause inquiry on its head.”

There is no timetable for the justices to issue an opinion. They could wait for a ruling in a pending case at the U.S. Supreme Court about whether an unconscious person can consent to a blood draw. That appeal originated in Wisconsin, and oral arguments took place in Washington, D.C., in April.

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