State didn’t prove all bottles, cans were from away in redemption scam conviction, justices told

Posted Oct. 23, 2012, at 12:17 p.m.
Last modified Oct. 23, 2012, at 6:56 p.m.

BIDDEFORD, Maine — The lawyer for a Kittery man appealing his conviction in Maine’s first prosecution for illegal bottle redemption argued Tuesday before the Maine Supreme Judicial Court that the state didn’t prove that the bottles and cans from Massachusetts and New Hampshire weren’t purchased in Maine.

The assistant attorney general who prosecuted Thomas Woodard told justices in a session at Biddeford High School that because Woodard knew the two men who redeemed the bottles and cans lived and owned businesses out of state, it could infer that they were purchased in those states and not in Maine.

Woodard, 51, was convicted by a York County jury on Aug. 19, 2011, of illegally redeeming in Maine 100,000 bottles and cans collected in Massachusetts and New Hampshire. The theft was from the distributors who are required by Maine law to pay between 3 and 3½ cents per bottle as a handling fee to redemption centers, briefs filed in the case said.

The case Tuesday was the first of nine to be heard this week in three Maine high schools during the high court’s annual road trip. Justices and students will hear oral arguments Wednesday at Brunswick High School and Friday at Bucksport High School.

Justices’ questions in the bottle redemption case focused on whether the state should have proven whether the bottles were purchased out of state; if the prosecution had proven Woodard knew the bottles had not been purchased in Maine; and whether the prosecutor in her closing argument improperly urged to the jury “to send a message” to the owners of redemption centers and the public by convicting Woodard.

Woodard was convicted of Class B theft for illegally redeeming 100,000 bottles and cans between April 4, 2008, and Feb.18, 2010. His wife, Megan Woodard, 43, was found not guilty of the same charge on the same day by a separate jury.

Megan Woodard owned Green Bee Redemption Center and her husband was an employee, according to information presented Tuesday during oral arguments.

A year ago, Superior Court Justice Carl O. Bradford sentenced Thomas Woodard to 21 months in prison with all but 21 days suspended and ordered him to pay $10,000 in restitution to the distribution firms that had paid the company for bottles collected in Massachusetts and New Hampshire and redeemed at Green Bee Redemption in Kittery.

He remains free on bail pending the outcome of his appeal, according to a previously published report.

Thomas Woodard’s attorneys, Richard D. Grundy of Lynnfield, Mass., and Neil Jamieson of Portland, argued in their brief to the high court that not enough evidence was presented at the trial to convict their client.

Grundy told justices Tuesday that the state was required to prove where each and every container it alleged was redeemed illegally had been purchased.

“This is what happens when you take a civil law like Maine’s bottle law and try to put it to the exacting standards of criminal conduct to it,” Grundy said in arguing that the state had not presented enough evidence to convict Woodard.

Grundy and Jamieson are handling Woodard’s appeal but did not represent him during the trial.

The attorney also argued in his brief that Assistant Attorney General Leann Robbin committed prosecutorial misconduct when she asked the jury in her closing argument to “send a message that you can’t be ripping off Maine beverage distributors” by returning a guilty verdict.

Robbin told justices Tuesday that her statement may have been “inartful” but did not rise to the level of misconduct and that the state had presented enough evidence for a jury to find Woodard guilty beyond a reasonable doubt.

The Woodards’ trial was the first in the state over bottle redemption fraud, according to a previously published report. Robbin said in August 2011 that she had not brought charges against others suspected of illegally redeeming out-of-state bottles due to a lack of evidence.

While Maine’s bottle law requires purchasers of most bottled and canned drinks to pay a five-cent deposit, Massachusetts’ law requires deposit on beer, malt or carbonated beverages but not on water, juice or sports drinks. New Hampshire has no bottle law.

At the time of the Woodards’ trial, the Maine Beverage Association estimated that bottle fraud in Maine costs distributors about $8 million a year.

Briefs filed in the nine cases to be considered by justices at high schools this week are posted on the website for the Maine Supreme Judicial Court at http://www.courts.state.me.us/maine_courts/supreme/oral_arguments.shtml.

There is no timetable under which the court must issue its decisions.

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