Law enforcement officials don’t have to show what specifically distracted a driver before a fatal chain-reaction crash, the state supreme court ruled, providing important guidance to law enforcement at a time when distracted drivers are a major concern.
The Maine Supreme Judicial Court ruled that lawmakers contemplated a wide variety of activities would be sufficient to support a finding that a driver was distracted and that the trial judge had adequate evidence to support a finding of distracted driving.
An attorney from The Bicycle Coalition of Maine said the ruling prevents law enforcement’s hands from being tied when it comes to distracted driving.
“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.
The motorist, Thomas Palmer, testified that 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 collided with an SUV, police said. A passenger in the van died.
The driver of the car had on a turn signal and conditions were clear. The driver reported that Palmer’s truck was swerving before impact.
Asked if he was distracted, Palmer told investigators that he may have been looking at a piece of paper or moving his head to stretch.
The trial judge concluded he was distracted in convicting him of moving violations resulting in the loss of his driver’s license for two years.
In the appeal, Palmer’s lawyer argued that the contention he was distracted was not supported by any facts pointing to what activity was distracting him.
The Maine Supreme Judicial Court said that 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.
“We conclude that the evidence was sufficient for the court to find, by a preponderance of the evidence, that Palmer was engaged in the operation of a motor vehicle while distracted,” the court ruled.
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