The state’s highest court upheld the manslaughter conviction of a Virginia truck driver for a crash that killed two Knox County residents, but ruled 5-2 Tuesday that a Maine law requiring blood tests at the scene of a fatal accident is unconstitutional.

Maine Assistant Attorney General Donald Macomber responded to the ruling by the Maine Supreme Judicial Court in a statement he issued Tuesday night.

“Effective immediately, before blood can be drawn in fatal accident cases, probable cause must be established before the draw can take place unless the motorist voluntarily consents,” Macomber said. “Without consent, a warrant should be obtained or exigent circumstances must be carefully documented.”

Two judges dissented from the court’s majority ruling, but the justices agreed there were extenuating circumstances in the case of Randall Junior Weddle.

Weddle was convicted by a Knox County jury in January 2018 on two counts of manslaughter, three counts of aggravated operating under the influence, two counts of driving to endanger and eight counts of various trucking rule violations stemming from the fatal crash in March 2016. The violations included false record-keeping, driving while fatigued, driving while using alcohol and driving while possessing alcohol.

Justice William Stokes sentenced Weddle in March 2018 to 30 years in prison with all but 25 years suspended, to be followed by four years of probation. The sentence was the longest prison sentence imposed in Maine in a vehicular manslaughter case.

The March 18, 2016, crash killed Christina Torres-York, 45, of Warren and Paul Fowles, 74, of Owls Head. Tracy Cook of Union was injured, suffering multiple broken bones and a concussion from the crash on Route 17 in Washington.

Testimony during the trial showed Weddle was speeding and under the influence of alcohol when the crash occurred.

The prosecution pointed out in its sentencing recommendation that Weddle had 12 convictions for operating under the influence and 11 speeding tickets before the fatal crash. Those were among 51 criminal and traffic violations.

At the time of the crash, Weddle’s driver’s license was suspended in Louisiana and Virginia because of OUI convictions.

Weddle lived in Virginia on the Tennessee border and when his license in Virginia was suspended for drunken driving, he got a license in Tennessee.

Even though a majority of justices said the 2003 Maine law that requires police to collect blood samples from a driver at the scene of a fatal or potentially fatal crash – without getting a court warrant based on probable cause – was unconstitutional, they still upheld Weddle’s conviction.

“We therefore conclude, in this highly unusual and exceptional circumstance, that the exclusionary rule does not prohibit the admission of the results of the blood draw because the officer who ordered that draw reasonably did so in good faith reliance on Section 2522 (of state law) and our prior decisions,” the justices ruled.

Because the challenge to the blood test was denied, the convictions stand.

District Attorney Natasha Irving, whose district covers Knox, Waldo, Lincoln and Sagadahoc counties, said law enforcement wants blood samples quickly because someone’s blood-alcohol level can change in the hour or two it might take to get a warrant.

“I don’t think this is the end of the world, but there could be a few cases what it could have an impact,” Irving said.

She was elected as district attorney after the case was tried. She said Weddle got a fair trial and she is pleased the conviction was upheld.

Maine law enforcement officials were not surprised at the ruling. One police chief said that district attorneys had known for a couple of years that changes to the law were coming.

Sanford Police Chief Thomas P. Connolly Jr. said the high court simply codified a process change that his department had been forewarned would be coming by the York County District Attorney’s Office. He does not believe that the court ruling will hinder law enforcement efforts to enforce drunken-driving laws.

“This change has been talked about for at least a couple of years,” said Connolly, who has been Sanford’s chief of police for the past 13 years.

Though blood tests can be helpful in determining whether a driver was operating under the influence, Connolly said there are other tools that a police office can use to convict an offender. An officer can require that a driver undergo a breath test, which is admissible as evidence in a court case. An officer also can use other clues, such as odor, appearance and the presence of alcoholic beverages in a motor vehicle to charge someone with drunken driving.

“I don’t disagree with the justices because a blood test can be intrusive,” the chief said. Connolly estimates it would take one of his officer about two hours to obtain a search warrant authorizing a blood test. But he said in remote areas such as northern Maine, it could take a lot longer to track down a judge or district attorney.

Knox County Sheriff Tim Carroll  said he had not had time to review the high court’s ruling to offer a comment on the impact of the court’s decision.

The court heard arguments in February 2019 and again in June in Weddle’s appeal.

Weddle’s attorney, Jeremy Pratt of Camden, had argued that the state erred in not obtaining a warrant to take a blood test from Weddle at the scene.

Pratt cited the 2013 U.S. Supreme Court case Missouri v. McNeely in which it ruled that police should have obtained a warrant from the court before they ordered a blood sample taken from a driver suspected of drunken driving.

The test showed that Weddle had a blood-alcohol level of 0.09 percent. The legal limit in Maine is 0.08 percent

Assistant Attorney General Jeffrey Baroody, who was deputy district attorney and one of two prosecutors in the case at the time of the trial, argued that because of all the activities occurring when officers arrived, a warrant was not obtained.

The justices stated in their ruling that “it took approximately an hour to extricate Weddle from his overturned truck. Once extricated, Weddle was immediately placed on a backboard for transport to a hospital via helicopter. While medical personnel were preparing Weddle for transport, the Knox County officer directed an EMT to take a sample of Weddle’s blood. At no time before the sample was taken did the officer request a warrant, attempt to gather information regarding Weddle’s state of sobriety, or attempt to obtain Weddle’s consent.

All evidence of Weddle’s possible intoxication – the bottle of whiskey, subsequent blood test results, and the testimony of eyewitnesses – was gathered after Weddle’s blood was drawn and cannot be used to justify the search.

“Neither the ‘magnitude of the drunken-driving problem or the state’s interest in eradicating it,’ Missouri v. McNeely, is disputed. Nor do we minimize the challenges facing law enforcement at the scene of a fatal or potentially fatal accident scene,” the justices ruled, citing the 2013 Supreme Court case.

“Nevertheless, ‘the general importance of the government’s interest in this area does not justify departing from the warrant requirement. …’ Nor does ‘the fact that people are accorded less privacy in automobiles because of the compelling governmental need for regulation diminish a motorist’s privacy interest in preventing an agent of the government from piercing his skin.'”

Staff Writer Dennis Hoey contributed to this report.

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