A passenger who allows a drunken driver to get behind the wheel can be tried as an accomplice, Maine's Supreme Court said.
The state's high court on Tuesday affirmed the conviction of a man who turned his keys over to a friend who also had been drinking. It was the first time the court had ruled on whether a passenger can be tried as an accomplice to the crime of operating a vehicle under the influence.In a unanimous ruling, the Supreme Judicial Court found that Hal M. Stratton was guilty in accordance with "the plain language of the criminal code - as well as the common sense of the situation."
Stratton's lawyer, Ronald W. Bourget, contended the high court's ruling set a dangerous precedent by forcing passengers to determine if a driver is drunk.
"I think people should be really careful getting in the car because criminal liability will now extend to the passenger," Bourget said in a telephone interview from Augusta.
On Jan. 24, 1990, Stratton and a friend, Buzzy Wyman, split a six-pack of beer and went to a Waterville bar where they drank more beer and whiskey.
Before driving home, Stratton said he gave the keys to his truck to Wyman, who was "soberer."
Police, responding later to a harassment and disorderly conduct complaint, went to a home where Stratton answered the door. He volunteered to police that Wyman had driven them home and had passed out on a couch.
The officers didn't believe Stratton and took him to jail, where he refused to take a breath test on the grounds he hadn't been driving. Wyman was never questioned, but Stratton was charged in District Court with operating under the influence.
When the case was transferred to Kennebec County Superior Court, the jury returned a special verdict convicting Stratton as an accomplice. He was fined $300, and his license was suspended for 90 days.
District Attorney David Crook, whose office prosecuted the case, said he believes that Stratton was the driver. He said the defense strategy of arguing that Wyman was actually driving Statton's truck backfired with the jury's decision.