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Motor Vehicle Administration v. Spies

Court of Appeals of Maryland

December 23, 2013


Barbera, C.J. Harrell Battaglia Greene Adkins McDonald [*] Bell JJ.


Bell, C.J.

We granted certiorari in this case to consider whether a moderate odor of alcohol emanating from the person of a motorist, alone, provides an adequate basis for a law enforcement officer to suspect that the motorist was driving while under the influence of, or impaired by, alcohol and, therefore, constitutes "reasonable grounds, " pursuant to Maryland Code (1977, 2009 Repl. Vol., 2011 Cum. Supp.) § 16-205.1(b)(2) of the Transportation Article, [1] to request the motorist to take an alcohol content test. For reasons provided below, we answer that question in the affirmative and reverse the judgment of the Circuit Court for Queen Anne's County.

On September 4, 2011, at approximately 1 A.M., the respondent, James Robert Spies, III, was observed by Maryland State Trooper Brad Hall ("Trooper Hall") to have "fail[ed] to obey [a] traffic control device" while driving on Main Street in Grasonville, Maryland. Trooper Hall pulled the respondent's vehicle over and, upon approaching the vehicle, detected a "moderate odor of an alcoholic beverage on [the respondent's] breath." Trooper Hall's request that the respondent submit to a standard field sobriety test ("SFST") was refused. Trooper Hall placed the respondent under arrest and transported him to the Maryland State Troopers Barracks in Centreville, Maryland. Once there, Trooper Hall, pursuant to Maryland Code §16-205.1 (a)(2)[2] of the Transportation Article, requested that the respondent submit to a blood alcohol content test. After being advised, through the MVA's DR–15 "Advice of Rights" form, [3] of the consequences of refusing or failing a chemical test for alcohol, and, pursuant to § 16-205.1(b), [4] the administrative sanctions attendant to the taking or refusing of a test for alcohol content, the respondent refused to take that test, as a consequence of which he was subjected to a 120 day suspension of his driver's license for the first offense. On September 23, 2011, the respondent requested, and was granted, an administrative show-cause hearing pursuant to §16-205.1(f), [5] to challenge the MVA's suspension of his driver's license.

On December 8, 2011, the respondent appeared before Administrative Law Judge Charles Boutin ("ALJ").[6] The ALJ admitted into evidence, without objection, a continuation letter received by the respondent, two copies of Trooper Hall's certification order of suspension, a photocopy of the respondent's driver's license, and the DR-15 advice of rights form signed by both Trooper Hall and the respondent. The respondent contended that he obeyed the traffic control device, and, as a result, Trooper Hall lacked "reasonable grounds" to stop him or request the field sobriety tests. The respondent conceded that the odor of alcohol emanating from his breath provided a sufficient basis for Trooper Hall to conclude that he had used alcohol and, consequently, to permit him to investigate further. The respondent denied, however, that it was enough to suspect him of having been under the influence. Thus, relying on Blasi v. State, 167 Md.App. 483, 893 A.2d 1152, cert. denied, 393 Md. 245, 900 A.2d 751 (2006), the petitioner contended that the MVA failed to establish that Trooper Hall had a basis for suspecting that the admitted use of alcohol impaired his driving.[7] Arguing, therefore, that the MVA failed to meet its burden, he requested that the ALJ take no action.

The ALJ denied the respondent's request and affirmed the respondent's 120-day suspension, concluding that the MVA's evidence outweighed the respondent's evidence and arguments. The ALJ specifically found:

"[T]here's more than sufficient information from a reasonable articulable suspicion point of view. We have a violation of a traffic device, we have moderate odor of alcohol, we have a licensee who flat out says, 'I'm not going to take the field sobriety tests, ' and then he's advised and he refused to take the test."

On December 19, 2011, the respondent filed in the Circuit Court for Queen Anne's County a petition for judicial review of the administrative decision. Relying on Ferris v. State, 355 Md. 356, 735 A.2d 491 (1999), he asserted that the ALJ erred in his assessment of the sufficiency of the proffered indicia of alcohol use; the respondent's alleged failure to obey a traffic control device, the moderate smell of alcohol, and the respondent's refusal to take the field sobriety tests, he argued, were insufficient to establish "reasonable grounds" for a request to take an alcohol content test. The MVA responded that Ferris, a criminal case, is inapposite[8] and that, pursuant to Motor Vehicle Admin. v. Shea, 415 Md. 1, 14–15, 997 A.2d 768, 775–76 (2010) (quoting Motor Vehicle Admin. V. Delawter, 403 Md. 243, 256–57, 941 A.2d 1067, 1076 (2008)), the Circuit Court should give deference to Trooper Hall's observations, his statements, and the negative inference Trooper Hall drew from the respondent's initial refusal to take the field sobriety tests.

The Circuit Court rejected the MVA's arguments. Concluding that, based on the totality of the circumstances, the MVA failed to establish "reasonable grounds" to suspect the respondent of driving while under the influence and, then to request that he take the test, it reversed the ALJ's decision. The Circuit Court determined that the record, which lacked documentation specifying the nature of the respondent's traffic control device violation, did not contain substantial evidence in support of the ALJ's findings and conclusions. Observing that the question of whether "the moderate odor of alcohol alone" is enough for law enforcement to reasonably suspect a person of driving under the influence or while impaired by the use of alcohol was left open by Shea, 415 Md. at 19–20, 997 A.2d at 779, the Circuit Court ruled:

"It is well-established that a low level of suspicion is required in a 'reasonable grounds' analysis. That being said, the record, as it was presented to the ALJ, was deplete of any sufficient indicia of alcohol use, namely because the failure to obey a traffic control device, the moderate smell of alcohol, and Petitioner's refusal to submit to a SFST, without more, simply do not rise to the level of 'reasonable grounds, ' as articulated in this State's case law."

On July 30, 2012, the MVA filed, pursuant to Md. Code (1974, 2006 Repl. Vol.) § 12-305 of the Courts & Judicial Proceedings Article, [9] a petition for writ of certiorari, which we granted on October 19, 2012. Motor Vehicle Admin. v. Spies, 429 Md. 81, 54 A.3d 759 (2012). The issue presented by the petition, and for which we granted "cert", was whether a "'moderate odor' of alcohol alone may have been enough to permit [the trooper] to suspect that [the driver] was driving while under the influence of or impaired by alcohol, " and, therefore, may constitute "reasonable grounds" to request that a motorist take an alcohol content test pursuant to Transportation Article § 16-205.1(b)(2).

In applying § 16-205.1, we do not "write on a clean slate" and must consider the guidance contained in our earlier cases. Shea, 415 Md. at 15, 997 A.2d at 776. In Motor Vehicle Admin. v. Sanner, 434 Md. 20, 27, 73 A.3d 214, 218 (2013), we considered a similar issue to the one in the case sub judice: whether an arresting officer who detected "a strong odor of alcoholic beverage emitting from person and breath" of a motorist, who had been involved in an accident, had reasonable grounds to request the test pursuant to § 16-205.1(b)(2). The principle difference between the dispositive question in Sanner and the dispositive question in the present case is that, in Sanner, the question was premised on there being a "strong" odor of alcohol, whereas here, the arresting officer only detected a "moderate" odor of alcohol. As we shall see, this distinction is immaterial.

In Sanner, we relied on Amalgamated Transit Union, Div. 1300 v. Mass. Transit Admin., 305 Md. 380, 393, 504 A.2d 1132, 1138 (1986), for the proposition that "[a] sufficiently strong odor of alcohol on the motorist's breath can furnish reasonable grounds" to "request or require an individual to take a chemical test for alcohol [under 16–205.1]." 434 Md. at 33–34, 73 A.3d at 222. In reaching our ultimate conclusion, we stated:

"Section 16–205.1 of the Maryland Transportation Article, also known as Maryland's 'implied consent' or 'administrative per se' law, was enacted to reduce the incidence of drunk driving and protect public safety. Motor Vehicle Admin. v. Richards, 356 Md. 356, 374, 739 A.2d 58, 68 (1999). See Shea, 415 Md. at 15, 997 A.2d at 776; Motor Vehicle Admin. v. Shepard, 399 Md. 241, 255, 923 A.2d 100, 108 (2007); Motor Vehicle Admin. v. Jones, 380 Md. 164, 178–79, 844 A.2d 388, 396–97 (2004); Embrey v. Motor Vehicle Admin., 339 Md. 691, 697, 664 A.2d 911, 914 (1995); Motor Vehicle Admin. v. Vermeersch, 331 Md. 188, 194, 626 A.2d 972, 975 (1993); Motor Vehicle Admin. v. Chamberlain, 326 Md. 306, 313, 604 A.2d 919, 922 (1992). In order to further this goal, § 16–205.1(a)(2) authorizes the detention of any individual who is suspected of 'driving or attempting to drive while under the influence of alcohol.' Probable cause to arrest is not necessary before requesting that a driver take a test to determine alcohol concentration. Ri ...

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