your connection to The Boston Globe

High court backs law on driver drug tests

Statute makes them mandatory

PORTLAND, Maine -- The state's highest court upheld a Maine statute yesterday that mandates blood alcohol and drug testing of drivers when a motor vehicle accident results in a fatality.

The decision stemmed from a manslaughter case in which a lower court ruled that the results from a blood-alcohol test of a driver were unconstitutional and should be suppressed. The judge ruled that the test results violated the Fourth Amendment protection from "nonconsensual, warrantless and suspicionless searches."

The state appealed to the Maine Supreme Judicial Court. In a 34-page opinion, justices issued a 4-to-2 decision, vacating the ruling to suppress the evidence and sending the case back to the lower court for further proceedings.

Chief Justice Leigh Saufley wrote that the statute itself is constitutional and that the test results are admissible in court if the state demonstrates that the defendant consented to the test or there was probable cause to believe the driver was operating under the influence of drugs or alcohol.

Saufley further wrote that the state's need to obtain information about the intoxication of drivers involved in fatal accidents has to be balanced against the privacy interest of motorists. "We conclude that the state's interest in gathering information to assist in addressing the problem of intoxicated driving outweighs the privacy interest of drivers in the content of their blood," he wrote.

Richard Cormier of Gray was driving a car that was involved in a head-on collision on Route 85 in Raymond on May 11, 2003. An elderly couple from Gray was killed in the accident.

Cormier was transported by ambulance to a hospital, where his blood was drawn. The blood-alcohol content was 0.08 percent, meaning that he was legally intoxicated.

Cormier was later indicted on two counts of manslaughter and other charges, but he moved to suppress the results of the blood test in a court motion.

Justice Paul Fritzsche agreed, ruling that Cormier had not consented to the test and that there was not sufficient probable cause to believe he was operating under the influence.

Fritzsche found the only justification for the blood test was the state law that mandates a test when an accident has resulted in a fatality. He cited a US Supreme Court decision in declaring the test results as inadmissible in court.

Supreme Court Justices Jon Levy and Susan Calkins disagreed with the majority opinion.

"The majority's opinion leads the law into new, uncharted territory in which probable cause, a cornerstone of the Fourth Amendment, plays a secondary, after-the-fact role," Levy wrote.

"Notwithstanding [the statute's] proper and noble purpose, I conclude that to the extent the statute authorizes searches and seizures based on after-acquired probable cause, the statute is unconstitutional."