Judge tosses a blood test taken without a warrant in manslaughter case

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The Food and Drug Administration approved a first-ever blood test to detect the telltale signs of serious brain injury, on Wednesday, Feb. 14, 2018. (Dreamstime/TNS)

A judge in Hancock County has thrown out the results of a blood test taken from a driver in a fatal crash, saying that police failed to get a warrant for the test and were not justified in getting a blood sample without one.

Darlene Haslam, 54, of Eastbrook faces charges of manslaughter, aggravated criminal operating a motor vehicle under the influence of intoxicants and driving to endanger in connection with a November 2017 crash in Eastbrook. Trudy Pickard, 54, a passenger in the pickup truck Haslam was driving, died when the truck spun around in the Eastbrook Community Center parking lot off Route 200, struck a guide wire for a utility pole, and then accelerated across the road and struck a tree head-on, police have said.

Not long after the crash, police took Haslam to a hospital and told her she was required to take a blood test, but did not obtain a warrant allowing them to get the sample. According to court documents, Haslam’s blood-alcohol content tested above 0.08 percent, which is the minimum at which someone is legally considered to be intoxicated. Haslam’s precise test results are not included in the public court documents.

Haslam’s defense attorney, Hunter Tzovarras of Bangor, filed a motion to suppress the evidence in court, arguing that the blood sample was obtained improperly and should not be used as evidence against his client. Justice Bruce Mallonee agreed and granted the motion Nov. 1.

At issue was whether police were allowed to get a blood sample without a warrant. Mallonee ruled that Haslam, though agreeable in her dealings with police, did not consent to having her blood drawn but acquiesced after she asked a police officer if she could refuse and was told she had no choice. The officer, Deputy Travis Frost of the Hancock County Sheriff’s Department, “never told her she could refuse and never gave her the opportunity to decline,” the judge wrote, despite her legal right to insist that he first obtain a warrant.

In his decision, Mallonee wrote that in some situations there are “exigent” circumstances — those that require immediate aid or action — in which police can legally obtain a blood sample without a warrant. However, prosecutors never argued such circumstances applied following the crash and records of the investigation do not suggest such urgency was a concern, the judge added.

The circumstances under which police officers are permitted to take blood samples from drivers without first getting a warrant have prompted recent appeals of similar cases at both the state and federal court levels.

This summer the Maine Supreme Judicial Court heard oral arguments concerning the admissibility of a blood sample obtained from a trucker from Tennessee who was convicted of causing a 2016 crash that killed two people on Route 17 in the Knox County town of Washington. The court has yet to issue a decision.

Also this summer, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that police can obtain a blood sample without a warrant from drivers who are unconscious and who are suspected of driving under the influence of alcohol, or if exigent circumstances require that police obtain a sample quickly.

In his decision, Mallonee cited an earlier U.S. Supreme Court decision, in 2013, in which the court determined that “exigencies must be determined case by case based on the totality of the circumstances.” Under that ruling, the judge noted, the natural dissipation of alcohol in the bloodstream does not amount to an exigent circumstance that would allow police to obtain a blood sample without a warrant.

Matthew Foster, district attorney for Hancock County, said Friday that despite Mallonee’s ruling, he still intends to prosecute the case, which has yet to be scheduled for trial.

“We would obviously have liked to have this evidence available to the jury, but there is plenty of other evidence of intoxication and reckless actions by the driver,” Foster said. He did not detail the other evidence.

Tzovarras did not return a message Friday afternoon seeking comment on Mallonee’s decision. https://bangordailynews.com/2019/11/09/news/hancock/judge-tosses-a-blood-test-taken-without-a-warrant-in-hancock-county-manslaughter-case/

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