Praneeth Manubolu challenged the blood test that was taken after the car he was driving in Acadia National Park early on Aug. 31, 2019, went off Park Loop Road, killing his three passengers. He argues the state-mandated blood sample shouldn’t have been taken because the accident occurred on federal land. National Park Service photo

The U.S. Attorney’s Office will ask a federal appeals court to reconsider a judge’s decision to throw out the result of a blood alcohol test for the driver in a car crash that killed three people in Acadia National Park last summer.

Praneeth Manubolu has been indicted on three counts of manslaughter, two counts of operating under the influence and one count of unsafe operation. Court documents show his blood alcohol content from the test in question was 0.095 percent, over the legal limit of 0.08 percent in state and federal law.

Praneeth Manubolu at the time of his arrest in August 2019.  Photo courtesy of Hancock County Jail

Police said Manubolu was driving a car on the Park Loop Road in the early hours of Aug. 31, 2019, when it rolled over and crashed into trees, killing his three passengers. He is being prosecuted in federal court because the crash happened in a national park.

U.S. District Judge John Woodcock granted a defense motion to suppress that blood alcohol test last month because the blood sample was taken without a warrant or the driver’s consent. The case was then scheduled for a possible trial in November, but the federal prosecutor filed a notice of appeal this week, likely putting the underlying criminal case on hold until the 1st U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals hears the appeal and issues an opinion.

The debate about the blood test centers on the lack of a warrant and a conflict between state and federal jurisdiction.

At the time of the crash, Maine law required that a blood sample be taken from any driver in an accident with serious injury or death. No warrants were required. Court documents show a local police officer cited that law when he arranged the blood draw at Mount Desert Island Hospital even though Manubolu did not consent and a judge had not yet signed a warrant.

The practice of routine warrantless blood draws has since stopped. The state’s top court declared that statute unconstitutional in January, ruling that authorities must first obtain either a warrant or the person’s consent before taking a blood sample.

While the old state law was in force at the time of the Acadia crash, the defense argued that it should not apply on federal land inside the park. And, the attorney said, the officer did not meet the federal standard to obtain a blood sample without a warrant. Warrants are required in federal cases except for limited, special circumstances.

The prosecutor argued that the officer had reason to collect the blood sample without a warrant because he knew three passengers had died and any alcohol in the driver’s blood could dissipate in the time needed to get a warrant.

The judge ultimately decided the blood test was not admissible in court. While federal law does allow warrantless blood tests when necessary in exigent circumstances, the judge ruled that in this case federal attorneys were slow to answer calls from investigators seeking a warrant. Had they been more diligent and still been unable to get a warrant quickly enough, there might have been a stronger argument to allow the test, the judge said.

“The blood draw here was flat-out unconstitutional and no exception applied,” defense attorney Walter McKee said after the ruling. “There are other battles ahead in this case, but this one has been won and we will fight on to the next.”

At the time, the U.S. Attorneys Office said only that it was reviewing the decision.

Park officials identified the victims as Lenny Fuchs, 36, Laura Leong, 30, and Zeeshan Mohammed, 27, all of New York City. Their families did not respond to a request for comment through the U.S. Attorney’s Office earlier this year.

Manubolu was 28 and living in New Jersey at the time of the crash. Court documents show he was released on bail, and his conditions of release allow for home detention. The judge has since amended those conditions to allow him to move to Georgia for a new job.

The ruling against use of the blood test followed others in recent years by the U.S. Supreme Court and the Maine Supreme Judicial Court addressing the constitutional requirements to take blood samples in suspected drunken-driving cases.

In 2013, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that people suspected of drunken driving cannot automatically be subjected to a blood test. But the justices said each case needs to be considered individually, so law enforcement officers still have the option to draw blood without a warrant in exigent circumstances.

Last year, the U.S. Supreme Court issued another ruling related to warrantless blood draws, this time saying police can take a sample from an unconscious person suspected of driving under the influence. Manubolu did not lose consciousness, and that case did not bear significantly on the arguments from either side.

In a 2018 case in Maine, District Judge Brock D. Hornby blocked the use of a blood test taken from a fishing boat captain who was charged with seaman’s manslaughter in the deaths of his two crew members. They died when his lobster boat sank in 2014, and a warrantless blood test showed the captain had ingested marijuana and oxycodone. The judge decided the test would only be admitted at trial if the captain testified that he had not used drugs, and the man ultimately pleaded guilty in exchange for a four-year prison sentence.

The U.S. Attorney’s Office also appealed the judge’s decision in that case. But the 1st Circuit never ruled on that case because the prosecutors withdrew the appeal.

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