Supreme Court to hear case involving state regulation of trucking

The U.S. Supreme Court on Monday, June 25, agreed to consider whether the state of Maine can regulate the delivery of tobacco products in the state by motor carriers. The decision could help define the limits of state police power in light of a 1994 law that preempts states from enacting or enforcing laws relating to the prices, routes or services of motor carriers of property.

The state trucking associations of New Hampshire, Massachusetts and Vermont sued Maine over a 2003 law restricting and regulating the sale and delivery of tobacco products purchased via the Internet or other electronic means, arguing that the law would require changes to how carriers operate that are prohibited by the Federal Aviation Administration Authorization Act (FAAAA) of 1994.

The Maine law required retailers to take certain steps to ensure that tobacco they sell through the Internet isn’t delivered to minors. It required retailers to use carriers that would ensure that: (1) the purchaser of the tobacco products is the same person as the addressee of the package; (2) the addressee is of legal age to purchase tobacco products and sign for the package; and (3) if the addressee is under 27 years of age, that he or she show a valid government-issued identification verifying legal age to purchase tobacco products.

Another provision makes it illegal for anyone to knowingly deliver tobacco products to a Maine consumer if the products were purchased from an unlicensed retailer. That section also states that a person delivering a package “is deemed to know” that the package contains tobacco products if it (1) so indicates on any side other than the side directly opposite the label or (2) was shipped by a person listed by the Attorney General as an unlicensed tobacco retailer.

The trucking associations argued that these provisions would be such a burden on carriers and require such significant changes in procedures that the law constitutes a preempted regulation of services.

The U.S. district court in Maine granted summary judgment to the trucking associations in all respects. In its review of the case, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the First Circuit mostly upheld the district court’s decision, but it ruled that a state can outlaw the knowing delivery of tobacco products that were purchased from an unlicensed retailer. However, Maine cannot impute knowledge based solely on a failure to read labels or consult lists, the appeals court said.

The Supreme Court likely will hear arguments in the case in the next term, which begins in October. For a copy of the appeals court decision, click here.