Police departments in Maine are already adapting to a ruling issued Tuesday by the state’s highest court that will require officers to obtain consent or a warrant before drawing the blood of a driver involved in a fatal crash.

But the ruling is not likely to substantially impede police investigations of fatal crashes, some officials have said. Police can make sworn statements – which are a required part of applying for a warrant – via an email affidavit from their police cruisers, and prosecutors and investigators are likely to generate blank template warrant applications to help officers complete the required paperwork quickly.

Portland Police Chief Frank Clark says his department already has begun adapting to the ruling requiring officers to obtain consent or a warrant before drawing the blood of a driver involved in a fatal collision. Brianna Soukup/Staff Photographer

“The concern historically has been that the longer period of time between the time of the crash and the time the blood was drawn is problematic in reflecting the blood alcohol level at the time of the crash,” Portland Police Chief Frank Clark said. “I think what’s going to be the case is we’ll have some templates available.”

Clark already has disseminated a memo to all personnel describing the new standards, and said he expects little disruption in the flow of fatal crash investigations, which in Portland are handled by a special unit. He also suggested that police will continue to use a reliable tactic of applying for a search warrant targeting a hospital that may have tested an injured driver’s blood after a crash, an unchallenged practice not contemplated by this week’s court decision.

“This is certainly something that’s going to make us stop and look at our policies and practices, but I don’t think it’s something that will ultimately impede our ability to prosecute people who are driving impaired,” Clark said.

And police officers still have the breath test at their disposal.

By law, Maine motorists are expected to submit to a breath test when police request one. Refusing the breath test results in an automatic license suspension and can result in an elevated OUI charge which carries longer potential jail time, higher fines and longer license suspensions.

The decision Tuesday by Maine’s Supreme Judicial Court overturned a 2003 state statute that required police to take a warrantless blood sample of all people involved in a fatal or suspected fatal crash and test it for the presence of drugs and alcohol. But the state’s highest court ruled that the law violated the U.S. Constitution’s Fourth Amendment protections against unreasonable search and seizure, ending a long-held practice that was an assumed part of how police investigated fatalities on the road.

The law also permitted the blood tests to be admitted as evidence in court, even when the blood was drawn before police established probable cause to charge the driver with a crime, such as operating under the influence, aggravated OUI or manslaughter.

The appellant in the case, Randall J. Weddle, was convicted of manslaughter in a 2016 crash on Route 17 in Washington, Maine, after the tractor-trailer he was driving crossed the center line and crashed, sending his load of lumber flying. Two people died and others were injured, including Weddle, who was pinned inside the cab of his truck for an hour before rescue workers freed him. Before Weddle was flown by helicopter to a hospital, a police officer on the scene ordered an EMT to draw a sample of Weddle’s blood. After the blood draw, police then found evidence in Weddle’s truck – a partially full bottle of Crown Royal and a shot glass.

Randall Weddle, center, with his attorneys during his 2018 trial, was convicted of manslaughter for a 2016 crash that killed two people. His conviction will stand under the ruling issued by Maine’s high court Tuesday. Stephen Betts/The Courier-Gazette

The blood tests showed Weddle had a blood-alcohol content of 0.09, slightly higher than the legal limit of 0.08, and more than double the 0.04 limit for commercial truck drivers. He was sentenced to 25 years in prison. Although the law permitting the blood draw from Weddle has been declared unconstitutional, Weddle’s conviction stands because the justices determined the police officer who ordered the blood draw did so with the good-faith belief that he was following the law at the time.

In Windham, Chief Kevin Schofield said he is still working through the implications and making plans to update his officers. But he said updating officers on changes to the law is a mandatory part of police work, and has been for decades.

“I have some friends of mine who were officers before Miranda was law,” Schofield said, referring to the landmark 1966 Supreme Court case that established a suspect’s right against self-incrimination. “Caselaw changes. Interpretation of law changes.”

Clark said annual police continuing-education training occurs annually through the Maine Criminal Justice Academy, which disseminates information about statutes passed by the Legislature in the previous session and addresses changes in case law, such as the decision this week.

More of that work will continue in Windham in the coming weeks, Schofield said.

“We’ll be reaching out and working a little more closely with our DA’s office to get a better understanding of this,” Schofield said.”Our goal is to make sure that our people are up to date on the law, because in this area, we do unfortunately deal with some serious crashes.”

Last year, the state laboratory that performs blood tests examined 589 blood samples. All but 14 cases were tests looking for alcohol, but the lab does not keep track of how many samples came from fatal or near-fatal crashes and how many cases involved an approved warrant.

This week’s ruling means police must make more careful observations and document their findings to support a probable cause determination that a crime occurred, without the benefit of blood test results that would positively show alcohol or drugs were a factor in the crash after the fact. In cases where a driver may be incapacitated by injury or refuses to consent to the blood draw, police must obtain a warrant.

“I don’t think it’s much of a surprise to those of us who handle these cases,” defense attorney Sarah Churchill said. “I don’t think this will represent a huge sea change. I think in some cases it’s the law in Maine catching up with the Supreme Court of the United States.”

But obtaining a warrant in the middle of the night or on weekends requires extra legwork by detectives, who must submit a sworn statement to a judge stating their probable cause to believe a crime occurred before they may execute a search.

In the Portland area, that process is not particularly difficult, Clark said.

“From the time you’re starting a warrant to the time you’re sitting in a judge’s living room could be within an hour,” he said.

But in rural parts of the state, the process can take longer, the Office of the Attorney General said, and more work will likely be needed before the process is seamless statewide.

“From what our office has been informed, it takes longer to get a warrant in rural parts of state,” wrote Marc Malon, a spokesman for the Attorney General’s Office. “Rules were changed several years ago to allow for obtaining warrant via email or telephone, but that is still work in progress with the courts.”

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