Maine high court upholds 25-year sentence in crash despite ‘unconstitutional’ blood test
February 3, 2020
The Maine Supreme Court ruled that a blood test conducted on a trucker after a fatal crash was unconstitutional. Regardless, the high court upheld the driver’s 25-year prison sentence for the crash.
On Jan. 28, the Maine Supreme Court agreed with former trucker Randall Weddle’s argument that a blood test conducted at a crash scene violated the Fourth Amendment. More specifically, Maine state law “directs law enforcement officers to test the blood of all drivers involved in a fatal, or likely fatal, motor vehicle accident,” according to the Maine Supreme Court’s opinion.
The court ruled that the statute is “unconstitutional on its face because it purports to authorize unreasonable searches and seizures in the absence of probable cause, which is inherently unreasonable and therefore in violation of the Fourth Amendment to the United States Constitution.”
Regardless of that ruling, the court upheld a lower court’s decision denying Weddle’s motion to suppress the blood test evidence. According to the opinion, the “unique circumstances” of the case qualifies the otherwise unconstitutional test for the “good faith” exception.
According to the opinion, the good faith exception applies to an officer who relies on a “search warrant that is faulty for some reason not apparent to the officer.” The U.S. Supreme Court has applied the exception when an officer obtains evidence by acting in “objectively reasonable reliance on a statute.”
Fatal DUI crash
In March 2016 at about 5 p.m., Weddle was driving his truck pulling lumber on Route 17 in Washington, Maine. Weddle’s truck moved into the eastbound lane when going around a curve, resulting in a crash with four cars traveling in that lane.
Lumber was thrown off the trailer, and the tractor-trailer itself ended up upside down on the side of the road, according to court documents. While at the hospital, Weddle claimed that the load shifted as a result of him attempting to avoid an oncoming vehicle near the center line. Two people were killed.
A bottle of Crown Royal was found in the cab while investigators looked through it days after the crash. Blood tests revealed that Weddle had a blood alcohol level of 0.09 at the scene. Further analysis revealed a positive result for hydrocodone.
Weddle was indicted on the following charges:
- Two counts of manslaughter.
- Three counts of aggravated criminal operating under the influence.
- Two counts of driving to endanger.
- One count of ill or fatigued operator.
- Five counts of false record of duty status.
- One count of use of alcohol while on duty.
- One count of possession of alcohol while on duty.
Attorneys motioned to have the blood test removed as evidence. That motion was denied. A jury found Weddle guilty of all counts. Weddle was sentenced to 25 years in prison.
Constitutionality of blood test
Just before being transported to a hospital via Life Flight, law enforcement directed that blood be drawn from Weddle. According to court documents, an EMT testified that law enforcement stated that Weddle had given verbal consent for the blood draw. The EMT would not have conducted the blood draw otherwise.
According to a brief filed by Weddle’s attorneys, one officer who was at the scene stated no permission was obtained because Weddle was in no condition to be asked. However, the EMT noted that Weddle was alert and responsive. Another officer also acknowledged that he did not obtain consent. Despite taking more than one hour to extract Weddle from the truck, no attempt was made to obtain a warrant.
Officers relied on Title 29-A Section 2522 of the Maine revised statutes, which states a driver involved in a crash where there is probable cause believe that death has occurred or will occur as a result will submit to a blood test. Weddle’s attorneys, however, cited two U.S. Supreme Court cases that found mandatory testing of blood to be unconstitutional.
In both cases, the drivers explicitly refused to submit to a blood draw. Furthermore, neither case involved a crash with another vehicle, let alone a fatal crash. In this case, it came down to probable cause.
“There is hardly a principle of constitutional law more firmly entrenched than the requirement that law enforcement officers may conduct a search only when they have probable cause to believe that a crime has been committed,” the high court states.
All evidence suggesting Weddle could be drunk, including the whiskey bottle and eyewitness testimony, was gathered after the blood test. Therefore, that evidence could not be used to justify the blood test.
“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,” the court ruled. “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.”
However, Weddle’s 25-year prison sentence was affirmed. The court found the test was conducted by an officer who could not know of the unconstitutionality of the test.
“The officer who ordered Weddle’s blood draw acted in good faith reliance on a statute blessed as constitutional as recently as 2007 and whose predecessor statute we also upheld in State v. Roche,” the court determined. “Further, we note our own recent inability to reach a consensus on the handling of blood draws, and … the view that section 2522 is constitutional still has some support. Given the unique fact pattern in this case, and the history of section 2522, suppression would serve no purpose other than to ‘withhold reliable information from the truth-seeking process’ and punish an officer for performing his duty.”
From here, Weddle still has the option to petition to the U.S. Supreme Court to argue against the “good faith” ruling.