PORTLAND, Maine — Law enforcement officials don’t have to prove what specifically distracted a driver who caused a fatal chain-reaction crash, the state’s top court ruled, providing important guidance to law enforcement at a time when distracted drivers are a growing concern.
The Maine Supreme Judicial Court ruled Tuesday that there was adequate evidence to support a finding of distracted driving against the driver, and it noted that lawmakers intended for a wide variety of activities to be sufficient to support such a finding.
But Jeffrey Toothaker, the attorney for the motorist in the case, said the ruling was unfair to drivers who simply “misread the situation.”
“The statute required the state to prove that he was ‘distracted’ by an ‘activity,’ not just day dreaming. The trial judge said she didn’t know what was distracting him but he’s guilty anyway,” Toothaker said Wednesday in an email.
An attorney for The Bicycle Coalition of Maine said the ruling prevents law enforcement’s hands from being tied in distracted-driving cases.
“You do not necessarily have to catch someone in the process of sending or reading a text, or eating a hamburger, or any other thing. You can use circumstantial evidence to prove distracted driving,” said Lauri Boxer-Macomber, who filed a friend-of-the-court brief.
The motorist, Thomas Palmer, said he “looked up” to see a car stopped while turning on U.S. Route 1 in Woolwich in August 2015. He never braked before his truck smashed into a car that was forced into a van, which crashed into an SUV, police said. A passenger in the van died.
The driver of the car that was rear-ended had on a turn signal and conditions were clear. The driver also reported that Palmer’s truck was drifting in the lane before impact.
The judge concluded Palmer was distracted and found him guilty of moving violations, resulting in the loss of his driver’s license for two years, something that posed a hardship for Palmer, who has homes in Maine and Vermont and is a traveling salesman.
In the appeal, Palmer’s attorney argued that the contention he was distracted was not supported by any facts pointing to what activity was distracting him.
In its ruling, the Maine Supreme Judicial Court said the judge had adequate evidence to convict Palmer of two infractions — a motor vehicle violation causing death and failure to maintain control — without an express finding as to the activity he was engaged in.
The ruling applies to civil and administrative matters in which a “preponderance of evidence” standard applies for guilt. A higher standard is applied in criminal cases, which require a finding of guilt “beyond a reasonable doubt.” Criminal charges were not filed in this case.
Nonetheless, District Attorney Jon Liberman called the supreme court ruling is “something that goes in the right direction as far as traffic safety.”
“We live in an age where probably most often people are distracted by their cellphones while driving but there are a lot of other things that people do behind the wheel that take away from their ability to safely operate,” Liberman said.