Beating the Rap . . . But Taking the Revocation  

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Myra Lynne Combs beat her DWI charges in court. The trial court held that the officer who stopped her didn’t have a lawful reason to do so. So the trial court suppressed all the evidence resulting from the stop, and the State dismissed the charges. But Combs’ license was revoked for a year anyway based on her refusal to submit to a breath test after she was arrested. Combs didn’t think that was right, so she took her case to the state court of appeals.

Combs v. Robertson. The court of appeals affirmed the license revocation, holding that the exclusionary rule that bars the admission of evidence gathered in violation of a defendant’s Fourth Amendment rights does not apply to civil license revocation proceedings. Thus, the trial court’s determination that evidence resulting from the stop of Combs should be suppressed on the basis that the officer lacked reasonable suspicion to stop Combs did not bar DMV from relying on that same evidence to revoke Combs’ driver’s license.

Facts.  The Mount Airy police received an anonymous tip on January 6, 2013 that the driver of a blue Ford Explorer might be impaired as the car was weaving in the roadway. Officer David Grubbs traveled to the area and saw a vehicle that matched the caller’s description. He followed the vehicle and did not see it weave. The vehicle made several turns, and at the last such turn, Officer Grubbs believed it crossed slightly over the center of the road, which did not have a painted center line. Officer Grubbs stopped the vehicle after it turned into a driveway.

Combs was driving. Officer Grubbs smelled alcohol when he approached Combs and noticed that her eyes were bloodshot. He asked Combs if she had been drinking, and she said she had a beer earlier in the evening. Combs got out of the car at Officer Grubbs’ request—swaying as she did so—and performed several field sobriety tests. Officer Grubbs noted several clues of impairment based on those tests. He arrested Combs and took her to the police department for implied consent testing.

At the police department, a certified chemical analyst advised Combs of her implied consent rights. The analyst delayed testing for 30 minutes so that Combs could contact a witness. At the end of that period, Combs refused to blow into the breath testing instrument.

Procedure.  When a DWI suspect refuses to submit to a breath test, an officer completes an affidavit noting the refusal. The officer submits that affidavit to the magistrate at the suspect’s initial appearance and mails a copy to DMV. So long as the law enforcement officer had probable cause to believe the person committed an implied consent offense, charged the person with that offense, and complied with implied consent procedures, the person’s refusal triggers an immediate civil license revocation of at least 30 days, which is ordered by the magistrate, as well as a one-year driver’s license suspension, ordered by DMV.  G.S. 20-16.2(d).  Neither the magistrate nor DMV is charged with evaluating whether the stop of the person was supported by reasonable suspicion before ordering the revocation of a person’s driver’s license.

Combs stayed the imposition of the one-year refusal revocation by requesting a hearing before DMV. When the matter was heard on September 27, 2013, the hearing officer determined that the statutory conditions for a willful refusal revocation were satisfied and ordered Combs’ license revoked. Combs appealed the order to superior court pursuant to G.S. 20-16.2(e). The superior court reversed DMV’s decision by written order stating that there was insufficient evidence to support DMV’s findings. The court’s order did not explain its analysis or specify which of the forty-six findings below was not supported by sufficient evidence. DMV appealed to the court of appeals.

Holding. The court of appeals reversed the superior court, holding that the record of the proceedings before DMV contained sufficient evidence to support its findings of fact. Combs argued on appeal that because the district court in her criminal case found that the officer lacked reasonable suspicion to stop her and excluded all evidence resulting from the stop, the officer did not have reasonable grounds to believe she had committed an implied consent offense. The appellate court rejected that argument as precluded by earlier case law, citing Hartman v. Robertson, 208 N.C. App. 692, 696 (2010) (holding that the “propriety of the initial stop is not with the statutorily-prescribed purview of a license revocation hearing”) and Quick v. N.C. Div. of Motor Vehicles, 125 N.C. App. 123, 126 (1997) (holding that the question of the legality of a defendant’s arrest is not relevant to any issue presented in a refusal revocation hearing).

They digress. The Combs court “pause[d]” its analysis to observe that there is a split among the states as to whether the exclusionary rule applies to license revocation proceedings. Combs cited cases from the supreme courts of Minnesota, Oregon and Vermont applying the exclusionary rule to civil license suspension proceedings stemming from DWI charges. See, e.g., State v. Lussier, 757 A.2d 1017, 1020 (2000) (concluding that, “in permitting defendants in a civil suspension proceeding to dispute whether the processing officer had reasonable grounds to believe that the motorist was driving while intoxicated, the Legislature assumed that a constitutional stop would be a necessary predicate to finding ‘reasonable grounds’ for suspicion of DUI”). Combs noted that the North Carolina Supreme Court had not yet considered the issue.

Unsettling effect?  The digression by the court makes me wonder whether the issue will remain settled. The precedent cited by Combs is consistent with our appellate courts’ parsimonious application of the exclusionary rule in other contexts, see, for example State v. Lombardo, 306 N.C. 594 (1982) (holding that the exclusionary rule does not apply to probation revocation proceedings), and generally accords with the principle that the rules of evidence of do not apply in refusal revocation proceedings. See Johnson v. Robertson,  __ N.C. App. ___, 742 S.E.2d 603, 605-06 (2013). Perhaps, however, our state supreme court will take up the court of appeals’ invitation to revisit the issue.

11 comments on “Beating the Rap . . . But Taking the Revocation  

  1. Corrupt as the entire traffic tging is a business. “Implied consent” is about as voluntary as “Voluntary compliance” by the IRS. Driving is a Right to travel allegedly guananteed by the 9th Amendment in the Bill of Privileges.

    • Since you don’t agree with the laws in the U.S. and are accusing the infrastructure of being corrupt, when are you relinquishing your citizenship and to which country are you moving to so we can assure your safe delivery!

  2. The rationale behind the exclusionary rule is stopping the government from taking advantage of their own illegal actions, thereby discouraging those illegal government actions. Allowing the government to revoke driver’s licenses contravenes that rationale. The exclusionary rule should be applied in situations like this. The police officer illegally stopped the driver & charged the driver with a DWI. The government should not be allowed to use any evidence resulting from that illegal stop. It should not matter whether the evidence is used by the government in a civil context or a criminal context; allowing the government to use the illegally-obtained evidence against the driver allows the government to take advantage of their own illegal conduct.

  3. Please spare us with your illegal government conduct nonsense. There is a difference between unlawful conduct and a judge ruling a lack of indicia of reliability in a complaint to justify reasonable suspicion for a traffic stop. I get it, the officer made a mistake and conducted a traffic stop based only on an anonymous tip and this is a no go, but the officer was clearly acting in good faith. He got a drunk driver off the road. It makes no sense to apply the exclusionary rule to a civil process especially when it does not apply to probation hearings. Next time she will simply blow or maybe drive sober.

  4. Terrible stop. The officer’s observations did not produce enough reasonable suspicion to effect the stop. The officer’s heart was in the right place, but nothing else. There was no indication on the distance of travel observation. At best, the officer could have articulated public intoxication and probably gotten the conviction. Just touching or crossing the center line, particularly one that’s not there, isn’t enough as there are a number of reasons for a driver to do so daily. Instead of making a traffic stop, and in light of the driver being safely off-road, the officer, in my opinion, may have been better served to do a consensual contact approach upon the driver exiting the vehicle with keys in hand, along with the other observations, i.e., exiting the drivers seat, observing the vehicle move into the driveway with the motor running, etc. This probably would have resulted in a conviction.

  5. The fact that Comb’s case was dismissed and she was found not guilty should also apply to her driver’s license not being revoked. It’s a package deal and its my opinion that her driver’s license should be reinstated. I have never understood why a civil revocation should be upheld when the defendant was found not guilty of the driving while impaired.

    • While I don’t necessarily disagree with the mindset of not-guilty = get license back (particularly since guilty individuals can get a limited driving privilege) – The obvious answer is that without the civil revocation license penalty, far more people would say no to the EC/IR II breath machine. Which is the state’s best evidence for a DUI conviction. Thus, refuse the test – have your license revoked for a short period – achieve not guilty in court because the state can’t prove .08 BAC – get license back.

      obviously the state could pursue an appreciable impairment theory, but an easy DUI conviction turns into an actual difficult trial for the state.

      This is the real reason why.

  6. It’s insulting and a shame that someone thinks their DWI deserves the time of the Supreme Court judges and taxpayer dollars. But, as she did take it to the Supreme Court, who overruled the decision, it is now time to face the music.

    If you don’t want to be hassled with the trappings of a DWI and the subsequent legal battles, DON’T DRIVE UNDER THE INFLUENCE OF ALCOHOL.

  7. The safety factor for all DUI arrest cases is always the most important, and not the status of the person’s driver’s license while the case is in progress. However if the person has beat the DUI charges in court once the case has concluded, it simply does not seem right that the person should still lose their license if they have been found not guilty of the DUI/DWI offense.

  8. The government is now going fast into unconstitutional territory, claiming vague public interest for potential injury that may occur in the future as reason to punish individual behavior, even on your own property. Law is now regularly made based on what makes some group feel uncomfortable.
    If you don’t want to have the right to be free, and are comfortable having a judge set your personal lifestyle, just drive north, Canada will your choices simple.

  9. I would also like to add the DWI laws have become far more strict for first-time offenders. Utah has just lowered their alcohol BAC limit .05, the lowest in the country.

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