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Law Court affirms decision in case involving Madawaska man

FRENCHVILLE, Maine — The Maine Supreme Judicial Court affirmed a decision made in a case where a Madawaska man was found guilty of plowing over a portion of gravel road in a dispute with Frenchville town officials.

Police charged Bruce Ouellette, 45, after they said he used farm equipment to plow up a portion of Pelletier Avenue in Frenchville on Oct. 31, 2016. He was sentenced to one year in prison with all but 10 days suspended in Aroostook County Superior Court in Caribou after he was found guilty on a charge of aggravated criminal mischief.

He also was sentenced to serve one year of probation. He was acquitted on charges of obstructing criminal administration and reckless conduct, according to a court clerk.

Ouellette and other family members maintained that part of the road is located on their farm property. The town, meanwhile, has been maintaining the road, including plowing it in the winter, as though it were a public way for 20 years.

In October 2016, the town of Frenchville began preparing a rural section of Pelletier Avenue to be paved. The town graded the existing gravel roadway, laid geotextile fabric on the graded surface and applied a base layer of larger stone gravel and a surface layer of smaller stone gravel. The next step would have been the installation of an asphalt surface.

Ouellette drove a tractor along a section of Pelletier Avenue using a harrow that tore the geotextile fabric and mixed the two sizes of gravel together with dirt, rendering that section of Pelletier Avenue unsuitable for paving.

Ouellette did so just as the town was preparing to make improvements, including paving the road.

The cost to repair the damage was estimated to be $52,000.  

Ouellette was charged with aggravated criminal mischief. During the trial, the jury heard testimony that Ouellette did not own any land along the stretch of Pelletier Avenue that he damaged, that Pelletier Avenue was posted with traffic control and road signage, and that the road was maintained, graded, and plowed by the town.

The jury found Ouellette guilty of aggravated criminal mischief. After the jury’s verdict, Ouellette appealed and argued for the first time that the geotextile fabric and gravel had become “fixtures” of the real property of Pelletier Avenue, and because the state did not establish who owned Pelletier Avenue, the state failed to prove that Ouellette damaged the “property of another” within the meaning of the applicable statute.

The Law Court denied the motion, concluding that the parties’ stipulation “sufficiently defined” for the jury that the damaged property was the geotextile fabric and gravel, that it was “appropriate for the jury to conclude that the ownership of the road was still in dispute,” and that the jury could have concluded that, regardless of who owned the road, the damaged property (the geotextile fabric and gravel,) did not belong to Ouellette.

Ouellette was not made to pay restitution by the court, stating on the record that its decision was based on the need to end contentious litigation surrounding the paving of Pelletier Avenue, and that the town of Frenchville’s decision to accept a deed of property from Ouellette instead of formal restitution constituted “a bargain for exchange” that sufficiently compensated the town.”

Writing for the majority, Justice Thomas Humphrey noted the Law Court ruled that Ouellette stipulated that the “damaged property” was the geotextile fabric and gravel applied to the roadway owned by the town, and he had damaged it. He also wrote that based on the way Ouellette operated the tractor and the estimated cost to repair damage, a jury rationally could have found that Ouellette “intentionally, knowingly, or recklessly caused damage to the fabric and gravel, and that the damage was in excess of $2,000.”

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