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State v. Nobles

Supreme Court of Maine

February 13, 2018


          Argued: December 14, 2017

          Tina Heather Nadeau, Esq. (orally), The Law Office of Tina Heather Nadeau, PLLC, Portland, for appellant Eric Nobles

          R. Christopher Almy, District Attorney, and Chris Ka Sin Chu, Asst. Dist. Atty. (orally), Prosecutorial District V, Bangor, for appellee State of Maine


          SAUFLEY, C.J.

         [¶l] Eric Nobles appeals from a judgment of conviction of operating under the influence (OUI) (Class C), 29-A M.R.S. § 24ll(l-A)(C)(4), (5)(D) (2017), operating after habitual offender revocation (Class C), 29-A M.R.S. §2557-A(2)(D) (2017), and driving to endanger (Class E), 29-A M.R.S. § 2413(1) (2017), entered by the court (Penobscot County, Lucy, J.) after a jury trial. Nobles contends that (A) the court abused its discretion in denying his motion for a mistrial after an officer testified that Nobles was on probation at the time of his arrest; (B) the prosecutor committed misconduct by (1) commenting on Nobles's reluctance to speak with the police before and after he was arrested and (2) asking the jury to hold Nobles "accountable" during closing arguments; and (C) the court erred in declining to instruct the jury on the competing harms justification as to the counts of operating under the influence and driving to endanger. We affirm the judgment.

         I. BACKGROUND

         [¶2] Viewing the evidence admitted at trial in the light most favorable to the State, the jury could have found the following facts beyond a reasonable doubt. State v. Guyette, 2012 ME 9, ¶ 2, 36 A.3d 916. On July 6, 2016, Nobles was driving his vehicle on a private camp road with a friend in the passenger seat. At around 7:00 p.m., a witness, who had left her camp and was in a pickup truck with her husband and their two grandchildren, observed Nobles's vehicle traveling toward them erratically and at a high rate of speed on the narrow dirt road. His vehicle was fishtailing, and they were forced to veer off the road to avoid being hit. The witness's stepson, who drove away from the witness's camp soon after she left, also encountered Nobles's vehicle barreling down the road and kicking up dust, forcing the stepson to pull off the road to get out of the way.

         [¶3] The witness and her husband delivered the grandchildren to their mother at the end of the road and then waited there for the vehicle they had seen to pass them again so they could take down the license plate number. After about forty minutes, the witness and her husband heard a vehicle approaching at a high rate of speed and saw Nobles's vehicle traveling toward them from behind. When Nobles reached the end of the road, the witness's husband pointed at him and told him to slow down. The passenger in Nobles's vehicle made a vulgar gesture with his hands and tongue before Nobles's vehicle turned toward town and proceeded down the road.

         [¶4] The witness and her husband followed Nobles's vehicle to take note of the license plate number and to call the police. Nobles's vehicle was traveling fast down the road ahead of them and suddenly came to a complete stop. They stopped their car behind his. After a couple of minutes, Nobles's vehicle made a quick U-turn around the pickup truck and drove in the opposite direction. While the witness was on the phone with the police, the witness's husband began to turn his pickup around to follow him. At this time, Nobles did two "three-sixties" in the road and took off "like a shot out of a gun" toward State Route 11, a public road leading to the center of town in Millinocket.

         [¶5] At about 8:00 p.m., after having been notified about the erratically operated vehicle, a Millinocket police officer saw Nobles's vehicle turn off Route 11 into the parking lot of a convenience store. The officer pulled in after Nobles and was later joined by another officer. Both officers observed that Nobles, who was in the driver's seat, had bloodshot eyes and that there was an odor of alcohol emanating from his vehicle and breath. He was uncooperative, belligerent, and unresponsive, except to say that he would exit his vehicle only if the officers brought him a drink of water. During this encounter with law enforcement officers, Nobles offered no explanation for his erratic driving.

         [¶6] After placing Nobles under arrest, the officers took him to the police station. Once there, he refused to participate in the standard field sobriety tests, to take a breath test, or to sign the form detailing the consequences of his refusal. He still offered no explanation for his actions. When asked for his address, Nobles responded that he was homeless and also stated, "I'm not taking your test, " before throwing down the tube to the breath testing machine.

         [¶7] Nobles was initially charged with a single count of OUI in July 2016, with complaints alleging operating after habitual offender revocation and driving to endanger filed in August. He was charged with all three crimes by indictment in September 2016.

         [¶8] The court held a jury trial on April 18 and 19, 2017. During opening statements, defense counsel informed the jury that Nobles would be testifying. Counsel stated, "Now, my client was not drinking and he will explain that. And you're going to hear him talk about how frightened and confused he was .... And my client, who is a rather meek man, got very confused, very anxious. He wasn't informed about what was going on. He didn't cooperate."

         [¶9] The witness, the witness's stepson, and the two officers testified for the State at trial. When the arresting officer testified, Nobles objected after the following exchange:

Q.....Now, after you went through this process with [arresting and attempting to test] him, did you allow him to bail or what happened from there?
A. He ended up being on probation.
Q. Excuse me. Can you just answer my question? Did you allow him to get bail?

         Nobles immediately moved for a mistrial. The court denied the motion but provided a curative instruction, before the State resumed examination of the witness: "I instruct the jury to disregard the witness's last answer to [the prosecutor]'s question."

         [¶10] The prosecutor also asked both officers if Nobles ever mentioned that he was frightened by or was being harassed by the witness and her husband, or if he gave any explanation as to why he was driving on a public road. Both officers testified that he did ...

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