A Tuesday decision by the Maine Supreme Judicial Court found that a state law requiring that drivers in fatal crashes submit to blood tests was unconstitutional. Credit: Dreamstime | TNS

The Maine attorney general’s office has told police officers that they must obtain a warrant before blood can be drawn from a suspected impaired driver at the scene of a fatal crash, but Maine’s court system currently cannot issue a warrant electronically to an officer at the scene of a crash.

The instructions from the attorney general’s office came Tuesday night after the Maine Supreme Judicial Court found that a state law requiring officers to obtain a blood sample at the scenes of fatal crashes is unconstitutional.

“Effective immediately, before blood can be drawn in fatal accident cases, probable cause must be established before the draw takes place unless the motorist voluntarily consents,” Assistant Attorney General Donald Macomber said in a listserv message to police officers after the court issued its decision in Maine v. Weddle. “Without consent, a warrant should be obtained or exigent circumstances must be carefully documented.”

How soon police officers will be able to electronically seek a warrant from their cruisers and have it returned signed by a judge after showing probable cause remained an unanswered question Wednesday. Because alcohol and drugs dissipate in the bloodstream over time, obtaining blood samples as close to the time of crashes as possible is important in prosecutions.

Although a law was passed several years ago that allows e-warrants to be issued, the court system is not yet capable of receiving and sending warrants to police officers in the field, according to Christopher Oberg with the court system’s office of technology.

Oberg on Wednesday could not say exactly when e-warrants for blood samples at fatal crashes would be implemented.

The court system is expected to make a major electronic upgrade next year when it implements an electronic case filing system. The pilot program will be implemented this fall in Penobscot and Piscataquis counties.

Macomber said that after the U.S. Supreme Court issued its decision in Missouri v. McNeely in 2013 — on which the state supreme court based its decision — he created a warrant form that officers could fill out at the scene of a fatal crash to show there was probable cause for a warrant. Macomber said that he anticipated Maine’s law requiring that drivers in fatal crashes submit to blood tests eventually would be overturned.

Marianne Lynch, district attorney for Penobscot and Piscataquis counties, on Tuesday said her advice to police officers would also be to seek a warrant for a blood sample going forward.

“The warrant requirement will undoubtedly impact investigations on these very serious cases,” she said. “I remain confident that Maine prosecutors together with law enforcement will work to comply with the law as set down by the Law Court.”

Lynch also said that the “importance of electronic warrants in light of the Weddle decision cannot be overstated.”

“Electronic warrants will permit officers at the scenes of motor vehicle fatalities to apply for warrants in a timely manner and transmit them to the court and on-call judges,” she continued. “The ability to secure evidence couldn’t be more important when investigating these significant cases.”

A recent report issued by the Justice Management Institute on the implementation of electronic warrants concluded that “by automating the warrant process, we give law enforcement officers a streamlined tool for pursuing justice and ensuring that individuals who drive impaired are held accountable.”

In its decision Tuesday, Maine’s highest court found “unique circumstances” in upholding the 2018 conviction of Randall Weddle, a 57-year-old trucker who was convicted by a Knox County jury of manslaughter and driving under the influence in a 2016 crash on Route 17 in Washington that killed two people. He was sentenced to 25 years in prison.

Weddle’s attorney, Jeremy Pratt of Camden, argued that a lower court erred in denying the suppression of the results of a roadside blood test taken without a warrant or Weddle’s consent shortly after the crash occurred.

But the court ruled Tuesday that while Weddle’s Fourth Amendment rights were in fact violated, there’s a “good faith” exception that allows for evidence obtained by illegal searches to be admissible in court.

The court’s new ruling is expected to factor into whether blood test results are suppressed in a vehicular manslaughter case pending in U.S District Court in Bangor following a crash in Acadia National Park over Labor Day weekend last year in which Praneeth Manubolu is charged in the deaths of his three passengers.

Manubolu’s attorney, Walter McKee of Augusta, has argued that the blood alcohol level of his client should be suppressed because the sample was obtained without a search warrant. Manubolu, who is a citizen of India and lives in New Jersey, is accused of driving the car under the influence of alcohol and is charged with three counts of manslaughter.

Killed in the crash, which occurred in the early morning hours of Aug. 31, were Lenny Fuchs, 36, Laura Leong, 30, and Mohammad Zeeshan, 27, all of New York City.

Zachary Heiden, an attorney with the ACLU of Maine, which agreed with the state supreme court’s Tuesday decision, said that evidence other than the result of a blood test could be used to prove a driver was impaired at the time of a fatal accident.

“There is plenty of evidence in these cases that can be gathered at the scene and used at a trial,” he said. “It’s a mistake to think the Law Court’s decision makes it impossible to prosecute someone for impaired driving in a fatal accident.”

Correction: Due to inaccurate information provided by Acadia National Park, an earlier version of this report listed the first and last names of one of the victims in the Park Loop Road crash in the wrong order.