The Maine Supreme Judicial Court will consider appeals Wednesday morning at a Maine high school for the first time in 2½ years.
Justices will hear oral arguments in three cases with Maine’s newest and only Black justice, Rick Lawrence, joining his colleagues at a school for the first time.
Students will hear arguments in three appeals — two criminal cases and a civil case. Since 2005, the state’s high court has held arguments at 40 high schools around the state so students can understand appellate law. Those high school sessions didn’t happen in 2020 and 2021 due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
“The practice of appellate law is rarely seen on television or in the movies,” Chief Justice Valerie Stanfill said. “Creating a courtroom environment in a high school takes great effort on the part of the school administration and staff and we appreciate their efforts. We enjoy getting out of the courtroom and into the community.”
In the criminal cases, justices will consider whether a defendant charged with drug trafficking waived his right to have an attorney present during questioning by police, whether a police traffic stop was legal, and whether a judge should have thrown out evidence from a breath test in a drunken driving case or declared a mistrial when an officer testified that he saw a marijuana pipe in the defendant’s car.
The civil case concerns a woman who saw a man die on the job. Justices will have to decide if she can collect damages due to the post-traumatic stress disorder she suffers from as a result. Lawyers for the crane repair firm the dead man worked for claim she can’t collect damages because she was not a direct victim of the company’s alleged negligence.
In one of the criminal cases, out of Penobscot County, Derric McLain, 37, of East Millinocket is incarcerated at the Maine Correctional Center in Windham on a June 2021 conviction for aggravated drug trafficking. He was sentenced to 15 years in prison with all but eight years suspended to be followed by four years of probation.
McLain was a passenger in a rented car driven by Calvin Vandine, 31, of East Millinocket on June 12, 2020. The Maine Drug Enforcement Agency was investigating Vandine for drug trafficking, and an agent who suspected he had rented a car and left the state to buy drugs asked a Maine State Police trooper to watch for Vandine on I-95. The trooper spotted the vehicle he was driving and pulled it over for having a loud exhaust, the court briefs said.
McLain’s attorney, Hunter Tzovarras, claims the trooper did not give Vandine a ticket for a loud muffler but delayed the men so the drug agent could get to the stopped car. That delay of about 20 minutes was a de facto arrest, he argued.
Assistant Attorney General Jason Horn, who prosecuted the case, said the agent’s prior investigative work into Vandine’s drug dealing was reason enough to stop the car.
McLain, who at the time of the stop had four warrants, was arrested once the agent found drugs in the car. Once at the Penobscot County Jail, investigators read McLain his Miranda rights and asked if he wanted to have a lawyer present during questioning, the briefs said.
“After being told this, Derric asked if there is a lawyer here,” Tzovarras wrote in his brief. “He was told no, and the agents proceeded to interrogate him.”
The officers should have stopped questioning McLain and let him call a lawyer, Tzovarras argued. Horn countered that when asked if he wanted to answer questions, McLain said that “it depends on what the questions are.” Asking if a lawyer is in the building is not the same as refusing to answer questions unless a lawyer is present, Horn said.
In the other criminal case, Joshua Beeler, 28, of Bowdoin ran out of gas on the northbound Brunswick exit off I-295 shortly before 11 p.m. on March 27, 2019.
A Maine State Police trooper stopped to see if he needed help, and when Beeler got out of the car, he appeared unsteady on his feet. After failing a field sobriety test, the trooper arrested Beeler and took him to the Cumberland County Jail for a breath test. It allegedly showed a blood alcohol level of .15 percent, or nearly twice the legal limit of .08 percent.
At Beeler’s trial, attorney Matthew Bowe of Brunswick sought to suppress the test results because of concerns about their accuracy and how test records were kept. He also moved for a mistrial when the arresting officer told jurors that he saw a marijuana pipe in the car, which was not relevant to the case.
The judge denied both motions, which are the subject of Beeler’s appeal. A jury convicted Beeler more than two years after he was arrested, and he was sentenced to 14 days in jail and fined $400 for his second drunken driving conviction in 10 years.
McLain and Beeler are asking that their convictions be overturned.
There is no timeline under which the justices must issue their decisions. An audio stream of the arguments may be heard at https://www.courts.maine.gov/courts/sjc/arguments-stream.html.