Maine DUI Defense Law Blog

Marijuana can cost you your license

Even if you are not stoned, you can lose your license in Maine if you use marijuana. Maine law says that if there is probable cause to believe you are under the influence of some drug, and you show a positive test for a drug metabolite in your urine, your license will be suspended.

The problem with this law is threefold.

First, probable cause is a very low standard of proof. It isn’t even proof that something is more likely than not, it is a mere suspicion based on observed facts. How little proof is required? The case of State v. Webster, 2000 ME 115, the defendant made an illegal U-turn. When police stopped him he denied any recent drinking, but the officer smelled alcohol on his breath. The officer then gave Webster field sobriety tests which he PASSED. Despite passing the tests, Webster was arrested. His breath tested at a .10% alcohol.

Webster filed a motion to suppress the evidence for a lack of probable cause. The court denied the motion stating that the illegal (but not erratic) driving together with the smell of alcohol and Webster’s denial of recent drinking, was probable cause to arrest him. When he appealed the Maine Supreme Court said the arrest was OK because: “The probable cause standard for requiring a person to take a blood alcohol test [or to arrest them] has a very low threshold.”

When I tell lawyers in other states about this they simply do not believe me. I have to show them the case.

The second problem is that the law does not distinguish between active metabolites and inactive metabolites. This is a big problem for marijuana users in a medical marijuana state. The primary active chemical in marijuana is delta-9 THC. That chemical rapidly breaks down into chemicals that do not affect you – they are called inactive metabolites. Inactive metabolites can stay in your system for days or even weeks after using marijuana.

So if you are stopped by the police for a traffic violation such as speeding, and your clothes smell of marijuana, they will ask if you have been smoking. When you tell them not for several hours and you are okay, they can still arrest you – even if you pass their tests. Then they will get a urine sample and that will show the presence of marijuana metabolites. Your license will be suspended

The minimum suspension is 150 days. If you refuse the urine test the minimum suspension is 275 days, so refusing is not a good choice, either.

The third problem is the type of test – urine. Urine tests say nothing about what is in your system and affecting you. By definition things in urine have left your system. Urine is a history lesson. It can tell us that you used a drug in the past, but it can’t tell us if it is affecting you now.

If you live in Maine and think this is unfair you should contact your state legislator. Tell your legislator that 29-A MRSA sec.2453-A is a bad law. A better law would require a blood test that shows an active drug or active metabolite before a license can be suspended.

Breath test is a search, but so what?

When I last wrote I discussed whether a warrant was needed for a breath test. I argued that a warrant was needed based on previous Supreme Court cases. I was happy that one judge agreed with me.

Well, a couple of weeks ago the Supreme Court decided North Dakota v. Birchfeld. They held that a breath test was a search, but that a warrant wasn’t needed. The Court basically said a breath test is not particularly intrusive. They concluded it can be done when someone is arrested as a search incident to that arrest. Again, one judge – Justice Sotomayor – agreed with me, that a warrant should be required.

The Court reaffirmed that a warrant is needed for a blood test. They also held that a state cannot make it a crime to refuse a blood test without a warrant because that would penalize people for asserting Fourth Amendment rights when the person insisted on a warrant. Although urine tests were not at issue, they will probably be treated the same way as blood tests, and a warrant will be required. I still think these rules should apply to breath tests, too.

The Court held that the state could still criminalize a breath test refusal because the person has no right to refuse a breath test.

State laws that impose criminal penalties (primarily jail) for refusing breath tests, and civil sanctions(such as license suspension) for refusing breath, blood or urine tests, are still lawful.

One good thing to come out of this case is Justice Sotomayor’s position on the need for warrants. Her dissent, together with her position in a few other recent cases, suggests she will be one of the champions of the Fourth Amendment and our collective right to be free from oppressive government searches.

A Breath Test is a Search


In 2013 the Supreme Court held in Missouri v. McNeely, 133 S.Ct. 1552 (2013), that a blood draw is a search requiring a warrant or a warrant exception. Since then I’ve been arguing that the same logic applies to a breath test. I based this argument on Skinner v. Ry. Labor Executives’ Ass’n, 489 U.S. 602 (1989) that held a breath test is a search. Skinner did not address the warrant issue because of special circumstances associated with regulation of the railway industry. Up until now I’ve had little success. Judges are reluctant to change decades of practice, even if that practice was unconstitutional. Last week I finally won a round in this fight.

In last weeks case my client was given field tests and then asked to voluntarily come down and take a breath test. He asked the natural question, “What if I don’t want to?” The officer told him that he would be arrested and taken to jail if he didn’t agree to take the test. If he agreed to take the test the officer promised to bring him home and not to jail, regardless of the test result. I moved to suppress the breath test for a lack of a warrant or warrant exception.

In a motion alleging a warrantless search, the state has the burden of proving there was a valid warrant exception. Recognized warrant exceptions are search incident to arrest, consent, exigent circumstances and a few others. The Supreme Court, in Arizona v. Gant, 129 S.Ct. 1710 (2009), limited the search incident to arrest exception to the extent that it cannot apply to breath or blood tests. Exigent circumstances are situations where it is extremely impractical for the officer to obtain a warrant in time to conduct a meaningful search, or some sort of emergency. In my case the state did not argue exigent circumstances. It is unlikely that any such argument would have been successful. Instead they focused on consent.

The state made two consent arguments. First they argued that the Implied Consent law was actual consent. Second, they argued that he actually consented to voluntarily take the breath test.

Every state has an Implied Consent law. That law says you will consent to a test or bad things will happen. Usually the bad things are license suspensions and telling a judge or jury that you refused a test when you take the case to trial. In some states it is a crime to refuse a test. The state argued that this was automatic consent that could not be revoked. The judge in my case did not agree. She found that consent to search for Fourth Amendment purposes must be actual and voluntary.

The state’s actual consent argument was in two parts. First, the cop denied that he told my client he would go to jail if he refused to volunteer to take the test. Fortunately, we had a very credible witness who heard the whole thing. That witness was clear about what she heard, and equally important, she was clear about what she did and did not remember. The officer was not so credible. His story has some inconsistencies, and things he did admit saying suggested there was talk about going to jail that he was denying. The judge believed the civilian witness and not the officer.

This left only whether my client actually consented to take the test. The judge held that a threat of jail was coercion that made the consent involuntary. She suppressed the breath test.

While this is a good start, we are not out of the woods in all cases. Many judges are holding that when an officer reads a person the Implied Consent consequences of refusing, that this is not coercion. Their logic is that the officer is simply advising the person of the legal consequences of refusing, and not engaging in threats. The problem with this logic is that if relies on the fantasy that the police and the lawmakers are unrelated. If the legislature passes a law that makes threats for asserting one’s constitutional rights, it is a threat by the government. Period. It doesn’t matter if the threat is communicated by a police officer or a state representative, it is still government punishment for asserting a constitutional right. It is coercion by the government.

Drinking one drink per hour and driving means trouble – usually a DUI

As a DUI defense lawyer I talk to people every month who were arrested for DUI. An alarming number of those people are truly surprised at their blood-alcohol level. Many tell me they “paced themselves” to one drink per hour. For most people this pace is a recipe for disaster.

A Brief History of Alcohol Calculations.

Scientists have studied alcohol for many years. In the early years of the 20th century a Swedish physician, Dr. Widmark, did extensive research. Based on his research he devised a formula for calculating blood-alcohol levels based on the amount of alcohol consumed, the person’s weight, their gender, and the amount of time that passed since first drinking. This formula then predicts a range for the person’s blood-alcohol level or concentration (BAC.) This is the formula that is used in virtually all smart phone calculators or the “drink wheel/calculators” sold. It is also the basis for the claim that one drink per hour will protect you from driving under the influence.

The formula was undoubtedly accurate for Widmark’s specific test subjects in the 1920’s and 1930’s However, variations in body composition, differences between laboratory and real world drinking patterns, and variations in how we measure drinks make calculations based solely Widmark’s formula unreliable.

Widmark’s Subjects were Skinny Kids.

The amount of water in the body is a big factor. The more water you have in your body, the more the alcohol is diluted. Widmark’s test subjects were students. This meant that they were younger than the average population. They were also Europeans living in the 1920’s and 1930’s. On average they were much thinner than today’s Americans. Whether you attribute it to fast food or other causes, Americans (even college students) are fatter than Europeans living 80 or 90 years ago. And the older we get, the fatter we are likely to be. Since fat tissue has less water than muscle, we have proportionately less water than Widmark’s kids. That means the same amount of alcohol will be diluted less and will give us a higher BAC.

For women this is more of a problem. Women generally have proportionately less muscle than men, so they have a higher fat proportion. They generally weigh less than men for a given height. Women have even less water per pound than most men. So the same amount of alcohol gives women higher BAC’s.

Widmark Drinking Sessions Were Shorter and Steadier

When graphed Widmark’s drinking sessions generated nice smooth drinking curves. The graphs of the BAC’s went up smoothly, plateaued nicely and then dropped off smoothly. This was because his subjects usually got their drinks all at one time. That way the body would begin absorbing and continue to do so until it was all in the system. Modern social drinking rarely involves drinking all of your drinks at the start of the night. We drink a drink and order another. It takes time. The result is a series of absorption events, not one smooth curve. Technically, the Widmark formula and the smart phone calculators can accommodate this pattern, but it requires us to know the exact time each drink is consumed. Imagine being at a bar or the Christmas party. How likely is that sort of timekeeping? Every variation makes the calculations less reliable.

Widmark Knew Exactly How Much They Drank

Widmark carefully measured the number of drinks his subjects drank. He knew the amount of alcohol to a small fraction of an ounce And his idea of a “drink” was different. For Widmark, a drink is 12 ounces of 5% beer, 1-1/4 ounces of 80 proof (40%) liquor or five ounces of 12% wine. In most cases, the drinks we get do not match that formulation. While canned or bottled beers often come in 12 ounce portions, the alcohol content can vary considerably. Restaurants almost never pour a 5 ounce glass of wine – they pour four to the bottle because they come out evenly. That is a bit more than six ounces of wine per drink. And again the alcohol content is not always 12%. If you are drinking mixed drinks, do you know exactly how much alcohol the bartender pours? If you mix them yourself are you measuring? Probably not. So a drink for Widmark purposes isn’t always a true drink. When you are measuring alcohol in fractions of an ounce, a half an ounce here or there can really throw off the calculations.

So don’t rely on the one-drink-per-hour rule. For most people having one drink every hour and then driving will get you arrested for DUI.

Police stopped my car. Why?

One question I hear from people charged with DUI is, “Was it legal to stop me?” Tonight I want to talk about some situations in which the police can stop us as we go about our business.

The best starting point is the Fourth Amendment to the United States Constitution. The Fourth Amendment is part of the Bill of Rights. It says:

“The right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures, shall not be violated, and no warrants shall issue, but upon probable cause, supported by oath or affirmation, and particularly describing the place to be searched, and the persons or things to be seized.”

When the police stop us in our cars, they are seizing us (our person) and our car (one of our effects). The difference between and illegal seizure and a legal seizure is one of reasonableness. If the seizure is reasonable in the circumstances, it is legal. If the seizure is unreasonable, it is illegal.

One of the two most common situations in which a seizure is reasonable is when the officer has a reasonable suspicion that a person might be breaking the law, based of facts known to the officer. This is called reasonable and articulable suspicion. Examples include a person weaving across lane lines or driving a grossly varying speeds. This conduct may support a reasonable belief that the driver is impaired. The second common situation is when the officer observes or discovers facts showing that the person has actually broken the law. This is called probable cause. Examples are a car doing 50 mph in a 30 mph zone, or driving without headlights at night. I discussed both of these situations in detail in my post, “How Much Evidence Do Police Need To Stop You.” I don’t need to rehash those situations here.

There are situations in which police can stop a person where there is no suspicion of criminal activity. Generally, these situations involved the police officers role in assuring public safety or other police duties.

One common situation in which people are stopped without actual suspicion that the person has broken any law is at a roadblock. Roadblocks serve many purposes. Customs and Border Patrol agents often conduct roadblocks near the borders with Canada or Mexico. The purpose of these roadblocks is to interdict illegal entry and smuggling. The Supreme Court holds these roadblocks to be generally lawful in United States v. Martinez Fuente, 428 U.S. 543 (1976). The Court held that the government interest in stopping smuggling and illegal aliens justified a brief detention without probable cause or reasonable suspicion. In other words the Court balanced the governmental interest in stopping illegal entry against the private interest in being free from being stopped briefly. The Court was careful to stress that the detention must be brief. Specifically, the detention can last only long enough to determine whether the person might be smuggling or be an illegal alien. Any further detention requires reasonable suspicion of criminal activity or probable cause that a crime was committed.

A second type of roadblock approved by the Supreme Court is the DUI/DWI/OUI roadblock. In Michigan Dept. of State Police v. Sitz, 496 U.S. 444 (1990), the Court balanced the public safety interest in catching drunk drivers against the same personal right to be free from detention. Again, personal rights lost the battle. The Court, however, listed various factors in a roadblock that are necessary to make the detentions constitutional. These factors generally are designed to lessen public fear at being stopped late at night and to reduce the amount of discretion that officers may exercise, thus preventing police for just stopping Hispanic drivers.

Another exception to the reasonable suspicion/probable cause requirement is when the police are acting as a “community caretaker.” If an officer sees a person bleeding or slumped over the wheel unconscious, the officer can generally stop and investigate to insure the person is safe. There are limits on this exception. Police cannot use trumped up community caretaker claims to justify an otherwise illegal seizure.

Another situation is where the officer is performing a normal police function and comes in contact with a person. An example is a car accident. Police are tasked by law to investigate car accidents. They have a right to detain and questions people who are involved in an accident.

Consent is another situation where a police encounter does not require any level of suspicion. If the officer pulls up next to you without the blue lights on and rolls down the window, and you then roll down your window and talk to the officer, that is a consensual encounter. If the officer observes slurred speech, the smell of drugs or similar indications of criminal activity, you can be detained based on that suspicion. If, however, the officer takes some action that reasonably makes you think you must talk to the officer, such as signalling you to roll down your window, it is not longer consent.

These examples do not cover every situation in which police may stop or question you, but they cover the major areas besides suspicion of criminal activity. If you are charged with a crime, you should talk to an attorney. That attorney will undoubtedly look at the issue of the reasonableness of the stop under the Fourth Amendment. In most cases, if the stop was unreasonable it is illegal, and the evidence that was obtained because of that illegal stop cannot be used against you.

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