On Tuesday, the Maine Supreme Judicial Court struck down a law requiring police officers–without a warrant–to draw a blood sample from individuals on the scene of a deadly crash. Maintaining the U.S. Constitution’s Fourth Amendment protections against unlawful search and seizure, the Court ruled that this principle applies to the taking of blood, even in “exigent” circumstances such as the scene of a fatal highway accident, where first responders must react quickly.
The question arose when Randall Weddle appealed his conviction on counts of manslaughter, operating under the influence, and other related charges stemming from a serious accident involving multiple vehicles in March of 2016, in which the tractor-trailer logging truck he was driving overturned on Route 17.
The officer on the scene believed that Weddle may have caused the accident, but without probable cause to suspect an intoxicated driver, ordered Weddle’s blood to be drawn. Later, evidence taken from Weddle’s truck showed an open, three-quarters full bottle of liquor. The trial court convicted Weddle, and on his appeal, he challenged the constitutionality of his blood test.
Last year, in the First Session of the 129th Maine Legislature, lawmakers passed, and Governor Mills signed, LD 264, a bill that allowed law enforcement to conduct roadside blood tests on the scene of an accident as described in Title 29-A Sec. 2522. Subsection 2 directs law enforcement to “cause a blood test to be administered” to a driver as soon as is practicable, as the officer deems appropriate.
The law mandates the operator of the vehicle submit to the test. Subsection 3 allows blood tests taken before the determination of probable cause to be used as evidence, if after the fact, probable cause was eventually obtained.
In early 2019, LD 264 was supported by all manner of special interest groups including AAA, Maine Municipal Association, Maine Sherriff’s Assocaition, and the Bureau of Highway Safety, many arguing that it would make it easier for police officers to collect evidence on scene. The only groups who submitted testimony opposing the bill were the County Commissioners Association, the ACLU, and The Maine Heritage Policy Center.
Testifying for MHPC, policy analyst Adam Crepeau cited the case of Birchfield v. North Dakota, in which the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that blood tests are much more intrusive, and thus, constitutionally different from breath tests. The Maine Supreme Judicial Court, in its ruling on Weddle, also cited Birchfield in overturning the statute.
Explaining that the “passage of this bill as is could be subject to constitutional issues if a law enforcement officer administers or orders blood to be drawn without a warrant where no exigent circumstances exist and the individual did not consent,” Crepeau almost exactly described the situation the court observed in Mr. Weddle’s case.
Although the court ultimately struck down the change in law contained in LD 264, it upheld Weddle’s conviction. It ruled that since the officer who administered the blood draw was following the letter of the law at the time, it could not throw out the case wholesale. Weddle will still be held accountable for his role in that fatal crash in 2016, but citizens will no longer be forced to submit to an intrusive blood test because they are present on the scene of an accident.