Court sends drug case back to Aroostook County on confession issue

Jon Levy
Kevin Bennett | BDN
Jon Levy
Posted Jan. 18, 2012, at 7:14 p.m.

PORTLAND, Maine — The Maine Supreme Judicial Court on Tuesday reversed a Superior Court judge’s ruling on the suppression of a statement made by a defendant charged with drug trafficking in Aroostook County.

In a 6-1 decision, justices said that Superior Court Justice E. Allen Hunter should reconsider his suppression of Scott E. Knowlton’s confession to an agent with the Maine Drug Enforcement Agency. Hunter will have to determine if Knowlton, 39, of Caribou knowingly waived his right to counsel and initiated a conversation with police after he had asked for a lawyer.

Knowlton remains free on bail.

The decision appears to clarify how a 2010 U.S. Supreme Court decision applies to Maine law. In Maryland v. Shatzer, the high court established a minimum 14-day waiting period between the release from custody of a suspect who has invoked the right to counsel and reinitiation of a police interrogation.

Supreme Judicial Court Justice Jon Levy wrote the opinion for the majority. Justice Donald Alexander dissented. The court heard oral arguments in the case in November when it convened at the Penobscot Judicial Center in Bangor.

At issue in Knowlton’s case is his confession made to MDEA agent William Campbell on Jan. 23, 2009, according to the 12-page majority decision. Hunter suppressed the confession and the state appealed that decision to the Maine Supreme Judicial Court.

Todd Collins, district attorney for Aroostook County, maintained that Hunter should have denied the motion because Knowlton initiated further conversation about the investigation. Defense attorney Alan Harding of Presque Isle argued that the court properly applied the 14-day standard and the MDEA agent, not Knowlton, initiated the conversation that led to the defendant’s confession.

That confession was presented to the Aroostook County grand jury on March 5, 2009, when Knowlton was indicted for aggravated trafficking of methamphetamines, unlawful trafficking in marijuana and illegal importation of methamphetamines.

Collins said Wednesday that he was pleased with the decision.

“This gives us a second chance for the judge to deem the confession is admissible,” the district attorney said in a telephone interview. “While we wanted the [state supreme] court to rule outright for us, this opinion does state that the lower court used wrong case law in this instance.”

Collins said that Hunter could grant the motion to suppress a second time after applying the the proper case law.

“This does provide guidance to prosecutors and defense attorneys on how the [U.S.] Supreme Court decision sits in Maine,” he said. “That’s valuable in and of itself even if we disagree with it.”

Harding was not available for comment Wednesday. He is suspended from the practice of law after being convicted last year of not filing state income tax returns. Harding is scheduled to return to work next week when his suspension ends.

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