A federal judge Monday put off deciding whether police violated the U.S. Constitution by forcing the driver of a car in a crash that left three people dead in Acadia National Park to submit to a blood test without securing a warrant.
U.S. District Judge John Woodcock told attorneys to advise him on whether the results of a second blood test, taken at the direction of staff at Mount Desert Island Hospital in the hours following the crash last Labor Day Weekend, could be entered as evidence at the trial of Praneeth Manubolu to prove that he was driving drunk.
The judge said that he did not want to rule on the constitutional question if he did not have to, if evidence of Manubolu’s blood alcohol level could be admitted legally from the second test, to which the defendant allegedly agreed.
The legal limit for blood-alcohol content for anyone driving a motor vehicle in Maine, and in Acadia National Park, is 0.08 percent. Manubolu’s blood-alcohol content from the warrantless test was 0.095 percent, according to court documents.
The results of the second test have not been made public but were presented to the grand jury that indicted Manubolu, according to a federal prosecutor.
Manubolu, 28, is a citizen of India who lives in Edgewater, New Jersey. He is charged in U.S. District Court in Bangor with three counts of manslaughter, two counts of operating a motor vehicle under the influence of alcohol or drugs and one count of unsafe operation.
He pleaded not guilty to the charges.
Lenny Fuchs, 36, Laura Leong, 30, and Mohammad Zeeshan, 27, all of New York City, were killed in the crash on the Park Loop Road that was reported at about 2:45 a.m. Aug. 31. It was the deadliest crash in the park’s history.
Two Bar Harbor police officers, who were first on the scene, and a park ranger on Monday all described the crash scene as “horrific.”
Manubolu’s attorney, Walter McKee of Augusta, in October filed a motion to suppress the results of a first blood alcohol test taken at Mount Desert Island Hospital about 90 minutes after the crash at the direction of police. McKee argued that because the crash took place on federally owned land, law enforcement should have obtained a warrant to take blood from Manubolu after he refused to submit to the test voluntarily.
At the time, Maine law required that drivers suspected of being impaired at the scenes of fatal accidents submit to blood tests. However, the Maine Supreme Judicial Court in January declared that law was unconstitutional because it did not require police to obtain warrants before blood could be drawn from drivers who did not consent to the test.
Assistant U.S. Attorney Raphaelle Silver, who is prosecuting Manubolu, argued the first blood sample was obtained legally under Maine law because, at the time, it was uncertain whether the Hancock County district attorney’s office or the U.S. attorney’s office would prosecute the case.
Silver also argued that there were exigent circumstances, including three fatalities, that allowed Manubulo’s blood to be taken without a warrant.
Woodcock said Monday that, as a federal judge, he was to avoid deciding constitutional issues if it was not absolutely necessary.
“I don’t know why I should make a pronouncement about constitutional law if I don’t have to,” he said.
McKee and Silver said they would submit arguments about whether the results of the second test are admissible, but were not prepared to argue the issue Monday.
The Acadia crash took place hours after Manubolu and others arrived at Mount Desert Island to camp at Smuggler’s Den Campground in Southwest Harbor and to hike in the park, according to copies of police reports filed in court. The group, which included more than the four people who were in Manubolu’s car when it crashed, had arranged the gathering through an app called Meet Up and had gone to Bar Harbor for food and drinks, first at the Dog & Pony Tavern and then at a “dance club,” before Manubolu left Bar Harbor in his Dodge Challenger with his three passengers.
Manubolu remains free on an unsecured bond of $7,500 on the condition that he await trial at his New Jersey home and wear a location monitoring device. His passport has been confiscated, preventing him from traveling back to India. He can leave his home only for employment, education, medical and legal purposes, and is subject to testing for alcohol use. Manubolu is not allowed to drive.
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 wrong order.