PORTLAND, Maine — The Maine Supreme Judicial Court on Tuesday unanimously ruled that a police officer may not charge a driver with a crime if the person initially was stopped solely because the officer was seeking information.
The court vacated the drunken driving conviction in Hancock County Superior Court of Ronald A. LaPlante, 53, of Bangor. He was arrested after a Maine State Police trooper stopped him to ask whether he had been passed by a suspected speeder.
Justices heard oral arguments in the case in June when the Maine Supreme Judicial Court convened at the Penobscot Judicial Center in Bangor.
“[The] factors [that] lead us to conclude that the public interest in addressing a civil speeding infraction, and the degree to which that interest is furthered when a single motorist is stopped for questioning, is far outweighed by the substantial interference with the stopped motorist’s constitutionally protected liberty interest,” Justice Jon Levy wrote for the court. “The investigation of a civil speeding offense does not justify the discretionary seizure of a motorist in the absence of reasonable articulable suspicion.”
Zachary Heiden of the Maine Civil Liberties Union argued the case on LaPlante’s behalf. He praised the justices’ decision.
“The court today recognized the continued vitality of the Fourth Amendment as a protection for motorists,” he said Tuesday. “No state Supreme Court had ever found that the investigation of a noncriminal driving offense justified a motorist stop and, thankfully, the Maine Law Court will not be the first.”
The Fourth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution protects individuals against unreasonable searches and seizures, which has been interpreted to include arrests.
William Entwisle, assistant district attorney in Hancock County, argued in June that the trooper was justified in stopping the defendant because LaPlante witnessed another motorist speeding and civil speeding offenses are a sufficiently important public interest to justify an investigatory seizure of potential witnesses.
Efforts to reach Entwisle were unsuccessful Tuesday.
LaPlante was stopped on Nov. 9, 2007, near the intersection of Routes 179 and 180 in Ellsworth by a state trooper, who asked whether LaPlante had seen which way a driver in a red Pontiac the trooper suspected of speeding had gone. The driver of the car was caught on radar going 71 mph in a 45 mph zone, according to court documents.
The trooper, according to briefs filed in the case, did not suspect LaPlante of breaking the law. During his conversation with LaPlante, however, the trooper began to suspect the defendant was driving while intoxicated and charged him with drunken driving.
The case was delayed until April 2009 because the trooper was deployed to Iraq, according to briefs.
LaPlante entered a conditional guilty plea pending the outcome of the appeal. Because the justices ruled in LaPlante’s favor, he will not spend 60 days in jail or be on probation for two years, which was the sentence imposed, according to a previous report.
He already has paid the $1,400 fine, LaPlante’s attorney, Jeffrey Toothaker of Ellsworth, said in June. The fine is not expected to be refunded.