The Maine Supreme Judicial Court ruled judges can convict drivers of violating distracted driving laws without an express finding as to the activity the driver was engaged in.
AP

PORTLAND (AP) — Law enforcement officials don’t have to show what specifically distracted a driver before 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 that lawmakers intended for a wide variety of activities to be sufficient to support a finding that a driver was distracted. The court also ruled that the trial judge had adequate evidence to support a finding of distracted driving.

An attorney for The Bicycle Coalition of Maine called it a “major” ruling that 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, 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 crashed into 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 also reported that Palmer’s truck was swerving before impact.

Asked if he was distracted, Palmer, who was from Vermont, 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 and convicted 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.

In its ruling Tuesday, 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.

“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.

The “preponderance of evidence” standard cited by the court applies to civil matters. A higher standard for guilt is applied in criminal cases, which require a finding of guilty “beyond a reasonable doubt.” Criminal charges were not filed in this case.

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