Law Court Finds OUI Stop Unconstitutional

PORTLAND — In a 4-2 decision Tuesday the Maine Supreme Judicial Court found the stop by an Ellsworth police officer of a driver who later was convicted of operating while under the influence was unconstitutional.

Daniel Whitney was appealing his 2011 conviction in Ellsworth District Court on one count of Class D operating while under the influence (OUI). Whitney, through his attorney, Jeff Toothaker, contended that the lower court erred in denying his motion to suppress evidence seized during the stop.

The events leading to Whitney’s arrest in November 2010 began with an early-morning investigation by Officer Shawn Willey of a single-vehicle accident on the Christian Ridge Road. No one was at the scene when the officer arrived but the reporting party told the police dispatcher that a man had been seen walking away from the crash toward the nearby Red Bridge Road.

Unable to determine the owner of the vehicle due to a registration issue, and after failing to track the driver using his police dog, Willey and another police officer began patrolling the area in hopes of locating the driver. Willey in court documents stated that he had two concerns when starting the “roving patrols.” He was concerned that the driver had been injured and needed medical attention and, secondly, that the driver had left the scene of an accident, which is against the law.

Around 3 a.m., a little more than an hour after beginning his investigation, Willey located three men standing on the Red Bridge Road talking with two people inside a vehicle. Whitney was the driver.

Court documents show Willey testified that he didn’t observe anything illegal about the vehicle and that the driver had not committed any traffic violation. As the officer began talking to the pedestrians, Whitney began to drive off, but Willey instructed him to “wait here.”

After interviewing the pedestrians, Willey turned his attention to the vehicle where he saw and open can of beer and noticed the odor of alcohol on Whitney’s breath. This led to Whitney being charged with OUI.

In June of 2011, Whitney filed the motion to suppress the evidence obtained during the stop, arguing that there was no probable cause for the stop because the officer had not witnessed any illegal activity before asking him to wait.

The lower court denied the motion in November 2011. In December, Whitney entered a conditional guilty plea that preserved his right to appeal the decision on his motion to suppress.

In hearing that appeal, the state Supreme Court overturned the lower court decision, concluding that “because Whitney was seized in the absence of any reasonable articulable suspicion of criminal conduct during a police officer’s roving patrol, the seizure was unconstitutional.” The court additionally found that the public’s interest in the crime of failing to report an accident and stopping a vehicle at random more than an hour after the accident occurred, is “outweighed by the significant interference with the stopped motorist’s liberty interest.”

For more police & court news, pick up a copy of The Ellsworth American.

Mark Good

Mark Good

Reporter at Mount Desert Islander